Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: The ending of “Swimming” is left open to interpretation. Did you know from the beginning that this was how the story would end up? If not, how did the ending develop throughout your writing process?

Gershon Ben-Avraham: I did not know the story’s ending from the beginning. I knew only that it would be set in motion by something that happens during Michael’s swim. I explored various possibilities by composing a question using the story’s epigraph from Audra Czarnikow as a guide: How might God walk through the troubled sea of Michael’s life? The ending came quickly once I had the answer to that question. I still needed, however, to relate the discussion Michael and Elijah had while walking together, with Michael’s relationship with the woman who comes to meet him at the beach. That association is made during the couple’s conversation in the car at the end of the story. It is an intriguing question to ask what Michael might have done if there had been no seal protecting her pup. I don’t know the answer.

RR: We understand that you also write poetry. Are there any particular writing practices you carry over from one genre to the other?

GBA: I find prose easier to write than poetry. Writing poetry exhausts me. When composing a poem, I frequently draft it first as a piece of prose, concentrating on word choice, grammar, and punctuation. Once these mechanical elements are in reasonable condition, I go back to the poem and turn my attention to poetics; I scan the sentences, count syllables, determine the placement of enjambments, work on internal rhyme, alliteration, and the rhythm of the lines. Then I put the poem aside for several days. When I come back to it, I ask myself two questions: does what I’ve written need to be said, and have I said it as well as I can. One of my friends, who is also a writer, has told me my prose often sounds to him like poetry. I would like to think that’s true.

RR: How has your MA in Philosophy influenced your writing? Are there any philosophers in particular that you feel your work connects with?

GBA: My area of concentration in philosophy is aesthetics, more particularly, the philosophy of art, the branch of the discipline that explores fundamental questions about art: what is art, do works of art have meaning, what makes a good work of art, how do artworks evoke emotional responses in us. Exploring these questions in aesthetics has led me increasingly to focus on the craft of writing, on its nuts and bolts.

I have been influenced by the late American philosopher of art, Monroe Beardsley. He and William K. Wimsatt argued in “The Intentional Fallacy” that an artist’s intention when creating art is irrelevant to understanding it. In his book, Aesthetics, Beardsley writes: “…the objective critic’s first question, when…confronted with a new aesthetic object, is not, What is this supposed to be? but, What have we got here?”  I couldn’t agree more.

RR: You’ve touched on similar themes of mental health in your previous work. What motivates you to address these topics?

GBA: I am interested in where the borders lie between those people classified as mentally ill and those people classified as mentally healthy. All of us, I believe, are damaged, some of us more than others. Certain people are better able to conceal their damage. In “Already Lost,” a short story I wrote published by Gravel, a psychiatrist works hard to gain the confidence of a man in a mental institution traumatized by something his father forced him to watch as a young child. The doctor views the man as sick. The last line in the story, referring to the patient, says, “In his chair, Benjamin begins to sway, rocking slowly back and forth, to the rhythm of a lullaby buzzing inside his head.” That lullaby is critical. Benjamin’s behavior is completely “rational.” I needed to understand that to understand him.

RR: Are there any particular writers who have influenced your writing?

GBA: Two writers have influenced me in particular, William Faulkner and Yasunari Kawabata. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Faulkner said, “…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” I believe that. It is what I want to write about. For style, however, I look eastward, to Kawabata. He, like Faulkner, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In “Swimming,” Elijah Brooks says, referring to Japanese writers, “I like them, especially the modern ones. Their vision is so clear, their style so simple, elegant you might say.” Consider this sentence from Kawabata’s Snow Country: “The moon shone like a blade frozen in blue ice.” Clear. Simple. That’s how I want to write.


Gershon Ben-Avraham’s work in Issue 6.2: