'Ant King' Author Keeps It Surreal

Arlington native Benjamin Rosenbaum is in town to read from
Arlington native Benjamin Rosenbaum is in town to read from "The Ant King and Other Stories." (By Dan Zak -- The Washington Post)
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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

His short story about an orange that rules the world (until it is picked, processed and put in his fruit basket) fits on a bookmark. Last week, Benjamin Rosenbaum gladly handed one out to a customer at Stacy's Coffee Parlor, the Falls Church hangout where he wove many of the yarns that appear in his debut collection, "The Ant King and Other Stories" (Small Beer Press), which has been 25 years in the making.

The Arlington native is in town to read from his collection at Stacy's (709 W. Broad St., 703-538-6266) on Friday at 7:30 p.m., roughly a quarter-century since he submitted his first story to the New Yorker at age 13. The story was called "Launching the Minyan," about a group of rabbis who are shot into space, and it asked some important theological questions, such as "Can it be Shabbat in space if the sun never sets?" It was rejected.

His work since has been defined by that same plausible-fabulist, magical-realism, science fiction vibe. Rosenbaum developed a reputation at Yorktown High School for being "the writer" but stopped writing altogether in his sophomore year of college. After that, he lived in Switzerland for a bit, learned Hebrew in Israel, worked 70-hour weeks with software start-ups in Silicon Valley, returned to the D.C. area, worked for a gaming outfit in Laurel, went back to Switzerland, and flopped back to Falls Church to work for the D.C. government and National Science Foundation.

And now, at 38, he's back in his wife's native Switzerland, works a 30-hour-per-week computer-programming job, watches his two children and writes. Here's an excerpt from our conversation, which was dominated by his hyper, verbose delivery (think a recording played at double speed) fueled by two cups of Stacy's chai.

When you were young, it seems like there wasn't just a drive to write; there was a drive to write and be published.

Yes, and I think "to be great," in fact. With some friends of mine, there's been an argument about greatness. A friend of mine says you have to alienate everyone and burn through life, very Bukowskian. . . . I'm more Flaubertian. Actually my life is rather tame. On purpose. I require routine.

So what stopped your writing in college?

By the time I went to senior year of high school and was famous among my friends for being this writer, it was almost unendurable to face the blank page because expectations were so high and my skill set was kind of spotty. I ended up having this miserable, excruciating case of writer's block that got worse and worse.

What got you started again?

I was 27 and had sort of stabilized. I had a career that worked. I was in this online start-up company doing online strategy gaming. I ended up writing a lot of the flavor text. . . . Funny bits of humorous things or whatever. And everybody started saying, "Why are you here? Why aren't you writing?" That was a weird bolt from the blue.

So you developed a methodology of submitting stories, a system of points for each rejection to motivate you to keep writing.

Yes, I made up this points system. So then I was really diligent. I would write every Friday. A lot of it was crap in the beginning, but I was sending them out regularly. I was pushing down a lot of doors and seeing what gave. I was reading sophisticated new-wave science fiction -- Sam Delaney, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ -- and postmodern literary fiction, like Milan Kundera, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon. Those are big influences. It's been a useful process to submit things and get them accepted for one thing or another, because it's clarified what works. The first story I sold was to Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was "The Ant King." The check came on my 30th birthday.

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