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Interview: R. S. Benedict on “My English Name”

Tell us a bit about “My English Name.”

I like to tell people that my story is what would happen if David Cronenberg directed Lost in Translation.

“My English Name” is a story about an imitation human who creates fake identities in order to function in human society. This time, he assumes the persona of an Englishman living in China. It all goes well until he falls in love.

CPR training masksAt its heart, it’s a story about identity. The protagonist is an entity who does not know himself. He pretends to be something he’s not in order to be accepted. But living behind a mask can be frustrating and lonely, and sooner or later the mask begins to slip.

 

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

The story was partially inspired by an anecdote told by Paul F. Tompkins, who recalled watching Matt Damon eat a pair of mysterious gelatinous cubes with no explanation; Tompkins started to wonder if the Hollywood leading man was secretly an extra-terrestrial disguised as a human. After Conan O’Brien heard the story, he said, “Any other alien that came to Earth would have to hide that from everyone else… But an A-list celebrity, right in front of people, can just have tentacles come out.”

It made me think about how most of us hide some of our quirks and flaws, but in some contexts, you can get away with being a complete weirdo and people just quietly accept it.

I thought of setting the story in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, or in some other surreal place where nobody tells the truth and everybody’s nuts, but I wasn’t sure I could depict those worlds accurately, because I haven’t been a part of them. Then I realized that it made the most sense for me to set in in China, where I’d been living for a little over three years. Expats in China can get away with a lot of strange behavior. When you do something really crazy, the locals tend to attribute it to cultural differences. They just sort of shrug and say, “Oh well! Foreigners are weird. Maybe he’s normal in America.”

A lot of Western expats living in China are a bit “off,” to put it politely. Many of my friends and coworkers out there were social outcasts back home, and many had psychological issues, like mood disorders, PTSD and in some cases severe mental illness. (A friend of mine liked to say, “We’re all running from something.”) Many of us went there to try to escape ourselves, shed our old identities and re-invent ourselves.

I started writing my story a little after David Bowie passed away, and his music was a big influence on how it turned out. The protagonist’s assumed name, Thomas Majors, is a reference to the Major Tom figure. I was listening to the song “Ashes to Ashes” a lot during that time, and I think I drew from it some of the tone and some of the major themes of decay and collapse.

My story was also heavily influenced by folklore. There are a lot of myths about cursed or transformed characters trying to become real people: the Frog Prince, Pinocchio, Hans My Hedgehog, Pygmalion, and so on. Often it’s true love that breaks the spell and fixes everything. Even as adults, we still believe in it: a lot of us chase relationships hoping that they’ll make us whole and solve all our problems, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

 

Was “My English Name” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

It is very personal. In many ways, it’s an emotional self-portrait.

I drew a lot from my experiences in China. While I was living there, I often found myself playing a part, like an actress: the part of the cool, confident, free-spirited American woman. It’s a role that doesn’t quite fit me.

I stuck out a lot. I spent a lot of time in a city that doesn’t have many Westerners, particularly Western women, so I often got stared at and pointed at and photographed. I felt very conspicuous much of the time and started becoming really self-conscious. I didn’t want to leave the house without makeup and a perfect outfit, because I knew that people would be looking at me. The main character in “My English Name” is acutely aware of how he appears to other people, and he’s constantly terrified that he’ll slip up and show someone who he really is underneath.

 

What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

I’d like readers to come away with sense of empathy for those of us who still haven’t quite figured ourselves out. We’re trying. Really.

It was really important to me not to provide any easy answers in the story, because in real life they often don’t exist.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a bunch of different projects, including some short stories and a rough draft of a Gothic novel that I’d describe with the three words “gay Nazi Frankenstein.”

I’m also working on an online serial called Hive. It’s a story about video games and social conditioning. It’s available on my website (https://rs-benedict.com/portfolio/hive/).

 

“My English Name” appears in the May/June 2017 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1705.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

R. S. Benedict’s website: https://rs-benedict.com/

The image used, “ugly masks,” was taken by German photographer Till Krech and made available for use under a creative commons license.

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