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Interview: R. S. Benedict on “Morbier”

Tell us a bit about “Morbier.”

“Morbier” focuses on a social relationship that fascinates me: the strange power dynamic between server and customer. On one hand, the customer has all the economic and social power: the customer orders the server around, frequently insults or harasses the server, and can punish the server’s perceived disobedience by leaving a lousy tip or complaining to the manager. But on the other hand, the server has all the physical power: the server has control over the customer’s food, and is often younger and stronger. It is only a thin layer of artificial social norms that puts the customer above the server. This is the case for so many hierarchical relationships involving assistants and their employers: a secretary could totally ruin her boss’s career if she ever decided to, a servant could rob her employer with no trouble at all, and a nanny could easily do something horrible to her client’s children. It amazes me that these disasters don’t happen more often, considering how badly most people treat service staff.


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

“Morbier” was my attempt to grapple with the madness of 2017. It was a difficult year for me, filled with major personal tragedies. I began to feel as if I’d stumbled into an alternate timeline.

I drew a lot of inspiration from my experience working in the dining room at an expensive resort in my early 20s. The characters aren’t directly based on any particular person I knew, but some of their traits–the quirky staff, the creepy customers, and the irate chefs–were definitely drawn from real life. And everything I said about chocolate fountains is true. Those things are an abomination against good cuisine and public health.

I loved incorporating my memories from that awful job; I think I exorcised a lot of pent-up anger from it. It’s important to me to show characters, even in fantastic fiction, working. It drives me crazy in movies or television shows when characters seem to have an endless supply of money with no apparent source. Most of us work for a living, and our adventures are shoved into what little free time we have to spare. And when disasters happen, they often creep in quietly in the background while we’re going about our daily lives trying to pay the rent.


What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story, and what was the most fun?

Originally, I organized the narrative in a straightforward way, but when it wasn’t working I started playing with the flow of time. It’s a story about trauma, in a lot of ways, and PTSD often involves flashbacks, so using non-linear time made perfect sense.

I also struggled with the viewpoint character. Originally, I pictured the character as a chunky, bearded guy named Patrick. But as I wrote it, I realized the character’s voice was a woman’s–she sounded nothing like the brash male chefs I’ve worked with. So Patrick became Trish.

I was very happy with how the side characters turned out, and the goofy relationships between them. I loved Jacob especially; he embodied all of the roly-poly party dudes I worked with in the dining room, guys who steadfastly refused to take our tyrannical managers seriously and proudly ruined every single can of whipped cream in the giant walk-in cooler by sucking out all the nitrous oxide. I put most of the characters in this story through absolute hell, but on some subconscious level I must have known I had to spare Jacob. I just couldn’t harsh the man’s buzz.

I realize that the central premise of the story treads on well-explored territory, but I love looking at old tropes from a different angle. In almost every movie about a fantastic menace, there’s a scene where the hero unsuccessfully goes to the authorities to ask for help defeating the vampire/zombie/alien/chupacabra, and the audience is supposed to get angry at the authorities for refusing to believe him. But I imagine most of us would be pretty skeptical if a frantic man in strange clothes came up to us and started shouting about pod people. Most of us would think the guy was crazy, though some imaginative part of our minds might still ask, “What if…?” 

I deliberately avoided answering the question as to whether or not the character of Mara is really crazy. I want it to remain ambiguous. Like Trish, we don’t have the benefit of hindsight; we can only stumble blindly into an increasingly uncertain future.


Why do you write?

I write because I couldn’t seem to find exactly the kind of reading material I was hungry for, so I decided to start making it myself.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

Kurt Vonnegut’s use of time in Slaughterhouse Five was a huge influence on this particular story. I also like to think that I draw inspiration from Shirley Jackson’s anxious heroines–there’s always something desperately wrong in every story, but none of the characters feel like it’s appropriate to come out and say it. And I love Kafka’s use of the uncanny and the bizarre, coupled with a sense of bleak, absurdist humor that runs alongside the strange and terrible things in his stories.


What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m wrapping up a story about Rita Hayworth. I’m also trying to make myself finish the first draft of a novel I’ve been working on for years now. God only knows if it will ever be published.


“Morbier” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

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