When Ben Stroud was young, he would often daydream, his mind populated by invented worlds and their imaginary residents.
The Texas native turned to writing fiction in college because it felt natural to commit the stories in his head to print.
In July, the 33-year-old creative writing professor at the University of Toledo published his first collection of short stories, Byzantium (Graywolf Press paperback, 192 pages, $11.49). He won the 2012 Bakeless Prize for Fiction awarded by Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which earned him the book deal with Graywolf and a fellowship at the prestigious Bread Loaf in Vermont.
The collection features stories both epic and minute in scope, and all of them center around the basic human yearnings of Stroud’s characters. In the title story, a crippled young man hungering for his father’s approval suddenly has the fate of the Byzantine Empire thrust into his hands. In Eraser, a pre-teen boy processes his stepfather’s intrusion into his life and wonders how much he really matters to his parents.
Stroud enjoys reading Robert Graves, Anton Chekhov, and Steven Millhauser. He finished Boccaccio’s The Decameron this summer. A self-proclaimed introvert, he peers out at the world through translucent gray, square-framed glasses and ponders his words before he speaks. He is married and has a 1-year-old son named Bram.
In the collection, Stroud alternates between historical and contemporary tales. The historical fiction is usually set in what he calls “overlooked” times and places. One of his stories is set in 1860s Havana, Cuba.
“My general fascination is with places that are a little bit off the beaten path,” he said. “So if you think of Havana, you might think of current Havana or 1950s Havana, whereas this is 1860s Havana… It was sort of an interesting place to do some imaginative work.”
The locations of his stories set in present-day, however, often come from places he has lived or worked. The story Amy details a professor’s affair with a high school acquaintance in Wiesbaden, Germany. He is fleeing a crumbling marriage and a failed attempt at acquiring a doctorate degree. Stroud spent a year teaching in Wiesbaden after finishing his own PhD but said he had a happy time with his wife.
“When I started that story, I started with the place and just thinking about being away from home,” Stroud said. After that, he developed his main character’s conflict. “A lot of times it’s taking those little kernels of experience and then magnifying them.”
Character is often the last element to take shape in Stroud’s stories. “The story is serving to figure out who that character is,” he said.
Stroud graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2002 with a bachelor of arts degree in English and history. He took a fiction writing class his junior year of college with Scottish author James Kelman, who talked to the class about his own writing life.
“The process was demystified in a way. I thought, you know, actually I could do this,” he said. “Or maybe I can, if I try really hard.”
After college he went straight into a doctorate program in 20th-century American literature at the University of Michigan, then started courses for a master’s of fine arts in fiction there. While working on his MFA, he wrote his first novel and unsuccessfully shopped it around with the help of an agent.
Still, Stroud kept writing every day, selling a few stories to magazines in the meantime. After finishing his MFA in 2008 and his doctorate in 2009, he taught in Germany and Alabama for one year each. He started at the University of Toledo two years ago.
He has taught Introduction to Creative Writing, a senior fiction writing workshop, and a novel writing class at UT, and he said he has some talented students. “The students are there because they want to write,” he said. “And they think about it, so you can have good conversations about writing.”
He teaches in the afternoons to keep his mornings “as sacrosanct as possible,” he said. “No matter how busy I am, I feel like I need to have that time just for writing because that’s how you move forward.”
As a newer author, it’s still strange for Stroud to see his name on a book cover. He bristles at the thought that he has a public persona, that people who don’t know him talk about him.
At the same time, it undoubtedly feels like success. “It makes you feel good because you’re finally breaking through,” he said. “It’s finally your book that’s in the bookstore, not you in the bookstore wishing your book was there.”
Although he wants to keep the details of his current work secret, he said that it is “novel-sized and it is set in the past.” He is reflecting on what didn’t work with his first novel to improve upon his second.
He hopes he can uphold that work ethic throughout his writing career.
“I don’t want to get lazy,” he said. “I want to keep challenging myself to do something new, something different, something hopefully better than the last thing.”