An Interview with Benjamin Busch
(Reprinted from O-Dark-Thirty/The Review Volume 5, No. 4—Summer 2017.)
Benjamin Busch is an award-winning writer, actor, photographer, film director, former United States Marine Corps officer who served two tours of combat duty in Iraq, and the author of Dust to Dust: A Memoir (Ecco, 2013).
He played Officer Anthony Colicchio on the HBO series The Wire, his writing has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Harper’s, and he has been a guest commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered. A native of New York, he now lives on a farm in Michigan with his wife and two daughters. Nonfiction Editor Dario DiBattista, also a former Marine, spoke with Busch for O-Dark-Thirty.
O-Dark-Thirty: I know this is painfully vague, but what does “identity” mean to you? How does it relate directly to writing and acting?
Benjamin Busch: There are both internal senses and external applications of identity. The latter is how we relate to other people, a tribal identity, and we are either born into it, adopt it, feel we’ve earned membership in it, or had it forced on us. We add our professions and religions, our nations and race, our sex and sexuality. I can always tell when an identity hasn’t been given much thought, lives on the surface, can’t defend itself. Writers and actors make decisions about who their characters are and how much their identity is influential. They have to find ways inside, past civilization’s dense fabric of labels, to what a character can’t deny under scrutiny.
ODT: What must an actor consider about “identity” in approaching their craft? What about a “writer,” in this same regard? Are approaches similar, to your thinking? What’s different?
BB: An actor is trapped with what is written while the writer creates the trap. Actors inhabit characters in order to “act” like them. Writers are charged with the same intellectual and emotional task, but with fewer limitations. Both are dealing with invention, but the actor is given lines, directed, much of their art imposed upon. The common labor is research and understanding. Any character the actor or writer doesn’t believe in will eventually fail their audience.
ODT: In military artistry—especially, acting or writing—it’s interesting to me how your identity gets assigned to you, and there are so many identities with clear or generally understood delineations—Marine, sniper, POG, grunt, Seabee, Airborne, etc. How might knowledge of this impact or influence the process a writer or actor exploring military themes would use?
BB: This goes back to research. Writers who choose to employ service members or veterans as characters have to know the tribes, have to sit by their fires and learn their vernaculars, rituals, and myths. I don’t believe in artistic territorialism with respect to ownership and authority over identities, that’s damning the immensity of imagination, but I expect deep research in the absence of direct experience. I despise the creation of a character built on stereotype and used as a decorative tool. A character has to have true narrative urge, a necessity born in the writer worthy of giving them space in a story. To find the right words, there must be sensory depth in the lives being written. In order for an actor to emote loss or fear or ferocity, they also have to understand it. An artist sifts from all they’ve seen, felt and been taught. The best wade deep to learn more about humanity.
ODT: In the MFA “rule book” of writing, it’s generally agreed that to have a good story, you need a protagonist who’s undergone some transformation of character from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. Obviously, understanding how your characters see the world and themselves in it can help with that. What are other ways intentional focus on “identity” can help with the craft and construction of creative writing?
BB: I don’t believe transformation is necessary in a protagonist. Plenty of characters, like people, don’t change despite consequences, new knowledge, or experience. They’ll drag more baggage in their lives, but they don’t always learn. Gamblers, addicts, fools. You know them. They’re real. A protagonist can move for an entire book and never get anywhere. We just have to be interested in them. I would say that most stories involve a problem, our protagonist’s drawn into some kind of trouble and forced to make a decision. It’s difficult to list stories where everyone in them is perfectly satisfied. Identity is often used in juxtaposition to the identities of others, friction heating between ideas, histories, environments and desires. Playing on a character’s awareness of identities can create that tension. I think it’s helpful to know where a character is from and how they got to where they are. Place and circumstance often intensify these feelings of identity. When I played Officer Colicchio on The Wire, I went on a drug raid with narcotics officers in Baltimore. I researched. Then I invented an identity as a frustrated police [officer]. I harvested some of my own feelings from the failures of our occupation in Iraq. I understood Colicchio.
ODT: You’re a veteran with an impressive collection of artistic endeavors (writer, poet, actor, educator), beyond your equally impressive collection of military experiences. How has your “identity” changed throughout your own personal journey?
BB: I have the legal public identities everyone else in America has a version of: father; husband; citizen; taxpayer; homeowner; American. But we don’t claim all our identities. I didn’t identify as a student in high school or college. I didn’t identify as a football player off the field. I don’t identify as a graduate. I teach in an MFA program, but I don’t claim to be an educator. I haven’t yet fully identified as a veteran. It still feels like exceptionalizing any past experience I’ve ever had, like saying I’m a teen because I spent seven years as a teenager. I don’t like much of what is added and assumed by the title “veteran.” I collect no benefits as such, except, of course, a particular comprehension of military service and warfare. But I fiercely identified as a Marine for sixteen years. In all company, in disparate gatherings, I was a Marine. I was the Marine at dinner parties, at gallery openings, in every introduction. Marine. I find that fascinating, because I’ve always most deeply been an artist. I’ve been an artist since I was seven years old, and it has remained the strongest of all categories I’ve lived in. But, for a time, I would answer “Marine” first if you’d asked. The arts are all braided within me now: acting, writing, photography, illustration, filmmaking. “Marine” still lingers though I don’t say it. It’s been eleven years since I wore my uniform. I think we choose, at some point, to commit to certain flags, raise them over us and keep them up despite the wind. I want to be able to tell you who I am, rather than to be told. I’ve been an artist without anyone telling me so.