Department of English

English Alumnus Ben Stroud publishes ‘Byzantium’

Tue, May 21, 2013
English Alumnus Ben Stroud publishes ‘Byzantium’
Ben Stroud, photography by Bering Photography

The literary world is buzzing about Department of English Alumnus Ben Stroud, whose debut short story collection, Byzantium, has been selected for the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize.  In Stroud’s collection, available July 23, 2013 from Graywolf Press, “historical reimaginings twist together with contemporary stories to reveal startling truths about human nature across the centuries.”  One of the stories from the collection, “East Texas Lumber,” was published in the June 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and the collection as a whole was selected as one of the “Best Summer Books 2013” after receiving a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly.

A 2002 graduate of the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, Stroud went on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in 20th Century American Fiction from the University of Michigan.  Currently an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing and Contemporary American Fiction at the University of Toledo, Stroud teaches a wide range of courses: Novel Writing, Advanced Fiction Writing, Introduction to Creative Writing, 20th Century American Fiction, and Contemporary Fiction, among others.  Although Byzantium is his first story collection, his work has appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Boston Review, Ecotone, and Subtropics.

Q&A with Ben Stroud

Many of the reviews you included applaud the wide array of settings, time periods, and characters your collection works with.  Why have you chosen such diversity for your debut work? Do you see these stories as connected in some way?  Would you want there to be a connection?  

The diversity in subject is mainly a product of my curiosity.  I often think about place first for a story--something about a place, a time sticks to me, and then the characters develop.  But deep down I'm mainly interested in characters, in human dilemmas--and, with the historical stories, in a way I'm interested in the more human side of history.  Not the big names, the big movers, but the smaller people who actually move the world.

Did your undergraduate work at UT influence your career choices?  How?

Definitely.  I figured out what I wanted to do at UT.  When I started, I had notions of majoring in International Business and then in Film.  I had the chance to work at the television station, on the Travesty, and take writing classes with John Trimble (now retired) and James Kelman when he was visiting.  By the time I finished at UT, I knew I wanted to write, and I knew--thanks to Trimble and Kelman--that to do that I'd have to work on it everyday, and get through years of bad writing before any good showed up.

So many of my great literature classes at UT were helpful to my development as a reader and writer:  Professor Malof's course on the Short Story, Professor Scala's course on Chaucer, Professor Graham's Life and Literature of the Southwest (where I first read Cormac McCarthy).  I also double majored in History, taking classes in Anglo Saxon History, the Ottoman Empire, Republican Rome, etc., which all fed my various fascinations.

Why did you choose to go on to a PhD after your MFA?  How has this decision affected your writing?

Good question!  I actually started the PhD first, and had been in the PhD program for four years (and was halfway through the dissertation), when I took a break to do the MFA.  I don't know that I was the best PhD student.  I was interested in research, yes, but I also saw the degree as a way to get paid to read great writing, as sort of a moonlighting gig while I did the work I needed to do to get better.

Why have you chosen to write short stories?  What do you like about the form?  Are there other forms you like to work in?

I like the containedness of the form, the way it forces you to be economical.  I also like it for its potential for experiment.  I can more easily try new things out in a story than in, say, a novel.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Mainly, write every day, read every day.  Be prepared to fail--a lot.  Failure is part of the game.  But if you keep going, those failures lead to your successes in ways you can't expect.  For instance, two of the stories in the collection come from a failed novel.  It was devastating when the novel fell apart, but in the end it led me to create something better.  Had the novel worked, I would have ended up with a less good thing, and I probably wouldn't have learned as much.

Do you have any upcoming projects?  What are they?

I'm working on something longer now.  I get cagey discussing current projects, so I'll leave it at that.

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