Writers are by definition obsessed with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week I’ll ask a different writer five or so questions on the subject. This week I talked with Pinckney Benedict. Pinckney grew up in rural West Virginia. He has published a novel and three collections of short fiction, the most recent of which is Miracle Boy and Other Stories. His work has been published in, among other magazines and anthologies, Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, the O. Henry Award series, the Pushcart Prize series, the Best New Stories from the South series, The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, and The Oxford Book of the American Short Story. Benedict is a professor in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina.
I heard from a mutual friend that there’s a kind of family tradition behind your name. What’s the story?
It sounds almost impossibly arcane when I lay the pattern out, and weirdly old-fashioned, but yes, my family has an established arrangement for naming its sons. The first male child in any given generation (in the male line–not sure how girls get their monikers but I assume it is through some whimsical process) is named, straight up, for the kid’s paternal grandfather. We don’t name sons directly for fathers: that’s just creepy and wrong.
So, for instance, my paternal grandfather was named Cooper Procter Benedict, and therefore my brother–who is older than I am by six years–is named Cooper Procter Benedict. Simple so far, yes? My father is named for his paternal grandfather, all three names, Cleveland Keith Benedict. My son–who happened to be the first son (of a son) in my generation–is named for my father, his grandfather, all three names: Cleveland Keith Benedict.
The second son of a son in the generation–which, in my generation, happened to be me–is named for his maternal rather than his paternal grandfather. In order to get the proper number of names, which is three, you have to lose one, because the last names are different, obviously. The Christian name is presumably the least important, being impulsively arrived at in families other than ours, so it goes away; the maternal grandfather’s middle name shifts into the initial slot; his last name becomes the grandson’s middle name; and, naturally, the paternal grandfather’s, and father’s, last name goes at the end.
This process results in names like mine. My mother’s father was named John Pinckney Arthur. Lose the first name, push the next two names back one place, and add on the last name: Pinckney Arthur Benedict. If I were by some remarkable turn of events to have another son, he would be named for my wife’s father. That august gentlemen is Gerald Louis Philpot, so this mythical second son of mine would end up named Louis Philpot Benedict, which strikes me as a pretty decent name.
Cleveland Keith Benedict, Cooper Procter Benedict, Pinckney Arthur Benedict: every one of those came into the family as a last name. In time, all of us Benedict men end up with three last names, three family names, with the result that all our names sound quite old-fashioned and are a bit unwieldy.
Seems medieval, you say. Sue us. We’ll just come lay siege to your castle with our onagers and our ballistas and our dogs of war.
Was there any preparing you or your childhood classmates for your name?
My preparation consisted principally of repeated exposure by my parents to the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue.” I was assured that my name, by its unusual (and risible to pretty much everybody I met, in grade-school society in rural West Virginia in the early 70s) nature, would make me tough and capable. It definitely contributed to some of the beatings I endured on the school bus.
I’m trying to imagine my parents preparing my classmates for anything, or working to ease my entry into any situation. Not possible. “That’ll take some of the rough edges off you.” Other people existed to provide abrasive action and thus make me a better man. Perhaps it worked. No way to know. Unbearable lightness of being. What are you going to do?
I’ve learned over many years of experimentation that, immediately after I say my name to someone I’m meeting for the first time, I repeat it, and then I say, “Like the color and the joint in the middle of your leg.” I used to spell it, but the four consonants in the middle really flip people out: “nckn.” You just don’t see that combination with any frequency. Plus people don’t spell very well, at least not anymore, or understand how syllables work. Give them a word over six letters and it’s like you’ve handed them the Rosetta Stone to work out all by themselves.
Where I live now, in southern Illinois, there’s a town about twenty-five miles away named Pinckneyville, so I can simply say, “Like Pinckneyville, but without the –ville.” That has made my meeting people easier. I still don’t like to meet people if it can possibly be avoided, but it is definitely easier when there’s a town nearby that has the same name you do.
I imagine there were some nicknames involved.
Nothing particularly witty, that I can recall. “Penis,” I guess. That’s fun. “Pigney.” “Prickney.” A bit too close to home and thus painful. A guy I once shared a rented house with for a brief period refused to call me Pinckney and always referred to me, even to my face, only as “Pete.” That was weird and humiliating, but I got used to it. Once got a piece of mail addressed to “Prunchney,” and I like that. My wife, Laura, calls me Prunchney every once in while, and I find it endearing. So “Penis” worst, “Prunchney” best. Intimate friends may call me “Pinck” if they feel so inclined. I insist on the “c” even when it’s only spoken. I can hear it if you call me “Pink.” Don’t care for it. Others call me Pinckney or PB, which I like.
You went to Princeton, right? How were you and your name received there?
I arrived at Princeton at the same time as Kyril of Saxe-Coburg, Prince of Preslav, Duke of Saxony, so my name seemed simple–Amish, even–by comparison.
I say Eggs Benedict, you say _______.
Nothing. I just punch you in the head as hard as I possibly can. Because that was another of the relentless nicknames, slightly better (but only slightly) than Penis. People thought it was hilarious, every damn time.
Actually, my family owns the whole “Eggs Benedict” thing. There was a great long story, I recall vaguely, about some dude named Lemuel Benedict (and at least I am not named Lemuel) who invented it, and to whom we imagined we were related. And we had a Siamese cat when I was a kid that was named Eggs. People would come to our house and ask, “What’s your cat’s name?” and we would answer, “Eggs.” And then it was a kind of associative intelligence test: how long would it take them to light up and go, “Oh…”? We took tests of intelligence (they were more like traps than tests, I suppose, now that I look back on them) pretty seriously at my house. It was kind of a gladiator academy that way. You could find yourself roped into a rhetorical knife-fight at a moment’s notice, and they were always to the death.
All ribbing aside, you have one of the most timeless names I’ve ever heard—especially for a writer. Did you feel destined toward writing or were there other options?
That’s gracious of you to say. I like my name a great deal now, and in fact always have, despite the mockery and drubbings. You don’t meet yourself coming and going if you’re named Pinckney.
My destiny, as someone named Pinckney Benedict, was doubtless to become an Episcopal clergyman, and perhaps eventually a bishop; but I neatly avoided that fate by discovering an intense distaste for Episcopalianism in about 1977. So becoming a writer was all that was left for me.
Breece Pancake was a fellow West Virginian writer, right. How did his name/career help pave the way for your own?
I discovered Pancake’s work–or, rather, it was revealed to me, by my teacher, Joyce Carol Oates–my freshman year at Princeton. It meant the world to me, to find someone writing in language that I recognized and about places that I knew and loved and felt homesick for. My first thought, when Joyce told me to read his work, was, “Gad, that’s an absurd name.” This would have been in about 1983. Since he had died in 1979, there was, it seemed, an opening in the writers-from-West-Virginia-with-silly-names department, and I was only too happy to try and fill it. And I’ve been trying to fill that void ever since.