What is a writer’s goal as a storyteller? For Ben Stroud, author of the story collection Byzantium and winner of the Bakeless Prize for fiction, the answer is: “I want the reader to feel swallowed up in the world of the story.”
The range of settings in the collection—from Istanbul during the Byzantine Empire to contemporary East Texas—really stands out. Stroud’s characters wander within the limits of each story’s particular world and, sometimes—especially in the story “Tayopa,” in which mine inspectors search the Mexican desert for a fabled, unmapped mine—they seem to be testing the limits of Stroud’s worldbuilding, pushing at its seams. In the introduction to Byzantium, Bakeless Prize judge Randall Kenan mentions the rumor that “short stories are best when about wee tiny things.” He then goes on to note that Stroud clearly “did not get this misleading e-mail.” And if Stroud has heard these rumors, he has not let them shrink his scope or put holes in his worlds, that’s for sure.
I asked Stroud what it was like to write in very different time periods and locations. “I would skip around [in time] because I didn’t want to get too comfortable,” he says. “I feel like there’s a level of comfort out there…in writing in the 19th century.” This is not the “unreachable past,” he says, and so he took on the challenge of writing a story set during the Byzantine Empire and making it “believable but also relevant.”
This is a mighty task, especially within the confines of a 20-page short story; the challenge brought about the question of authenticity. “I’ve always been curious about how much research you need to have that authority to write a story in a historical mode,” Stroud says. He had the opportunity to ask authors Steven Millhauser and Edward P. Jones this question, and they had very different answers. Stroud says that Jones’ approach in writing The Known World was to read a few books and then decide that he knew what the 19th century was like: “People rode in carriages.” “But then he creates this beautiful book that has this authority to it too,” admires Stroud. Millhauser apparently took the opposite approach, researching everything down to the “exact type of streetlamp that you’d have in New York in 1892.” With differing approaches to research guiding him, Stroud had to decide what was best for his writing. “I read enough to get started, just so that I know where things are located,” he says. “It can be kind of crippling to do all of the research beforehand since you don’t really know what you’ll need until you’ve written the story.”
What is unique about Stroud’s stories is how a character works as the window into a story’s world—the character feels through his world, acts upon it and within it and, most importantly, thinks beyond it. “I’m deeply invested in building a character’s world. Whether that world is contemporary or in the past, it is very much filtered through a character’s experience,” he says. What binds these unique worlds are indeed the characters’ experiences and the unifying human emotions present in each story. Many of Stroud’s characters are isolated, estranged—the main character in “Amy” comes to mind, as he finds comfort in knowing “I owe no one,” as does the young boy in “Eraser,” who seeks to overcome the isolation he feels from his parents using desperate measures. But these characters are not alone in their ambitions to reach for more, or in their guarded feelings of hope. These feelings are what push each character from inaction to action. They are catalysts for adventure, the makings of a story.
“The pleasure of story itself” is the heartbeat of Byzantium, and what Stroud says he’s working for. We talked about elements of chance in our conversation, mostly in reference to getting his work published. Stroud’s advice to aspiring writers, by the way, is to “keep sending your work out….You never know when one publication might lead to another.” This is the part that you’re in control of, he reminds writers—“everything else is kind of wacky.” Elements of chance are vital to Stroud’s writing, as well. By not crippling his imagination with a mountain of research, he allows his stories to take their own direction. He sees where his characters go, and this inspires a gradual growth of their worlds. In each story, Stroud’s characters attempt to take control and also learn how to accept when they aren’t in control of their lives—that the world is acting upon them, too—and this is how Stroud’s worldbuilding achieves that level of being both believable and relevant.
Thankfully, Stroud has embraced the elements of chance. He submitted Byzantium to the Bakeless Prize after a long struggle to find a home for the book—and won. Next on his agenda, Stroud will be attending the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in August, where he’ll get to teach a class on how much research you need for authenticity. “It will give me a chance to think about this more…talk with other writers about how we do this,” he says. The question left for him to answer is: “When can I just let the story take over?”
At the end of our conversation, I had to ask if he had another book in the works. Stroud let me know that he’s been working on a novel for two years, and is hoping to finish soon. That was going to be it, but then he added: “Okay, I guess I’ll say it. It’s set in Rome in 1503.” After experiencing the living, breathing worlds sustained in Byzantium, I can’t wait to see where this next story takes him.
Chelsea Langford is the editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.