July 10, 2012

Author Interview: Ben H. Winters

It's July 10, and I'm a little excited about posting my first author interview.

Aaand...it just so happens that my interview is with Ben H. Winters, whose book, The Last Policeman, hits shelves today.  If you care to refresh your memory, my review of this book lives here.  (Spoiler: I enjoyed this book. Quite a bit.)
I was nervous about contacting Ben with my interview questions, but he was super-nice and gracious, and didn't even make fun of my sillier questions.  (Well, ok, maybe he teased me a little, but that's fine by me.)

So, without further ado, meet Ben! Seriously - he seems like a nice guy, and now I REALLY need to re-read On the Beach and re-watch Life Is Beautiful, even though I know I'll cry...again.


I love how you turn one genre (mystery) on its side with the injection of another (sci-fi/dystopian world).  Is that always how you envisioned this story, or did that come once you started writing?

Thanks. And yes, that is always how I envisioned the story. I knew I wanted to do a detective story, with an almost pathologically conscientious hero, and the end of the world seemed like the perfect background against which to watch such a hero find his way. That’s where it came from—more from the character idea than the story idea, at first. 

Are you a planner/outliner, or a seat-of-your-pants writer?

Like most writers, I go back and forth. I almost always start with an outline, and it almost always ends up being completely abandoned or revised. But especially when you’re writing detective fiction, with lots of clues and reveals, you’d be nuts to not have at least some idea of how things are going to turn out, before you get going.

In the book, a giant asteroid hurtles towards Earth, and people are told they have less than six months to live.  Many of their reactions become patterns – suicide, stay-the-course, or go fulfill a bucket list.  Let’s assume neither of us would be suiciders….are you more of a bucket-lister, or a stay-the-courser?

Oh, definitely I’m a stay-the-courser. But I am also very, very lucky in that I love what I do, and I would keep writing til the world blows up. If I had a less satisfying job, I would probably stop doing it immediately. I also really love my family, and would spend as much time as I could with my children, while bending over backwards to hide the truth from them—like Roberto Benigni does in that movie where he’s in a concentration camp with his kid.

When I’m immersed in writing or editing one of my stories, particularly those of a zombie-nature, I find myself eyeing crowded rooms warily, always aware of where my closest exits are. (Not kidding – I really do this.) Did you find yourself with any strange behaviors while writing The Last Policeman? Maybe eyeing the sky nervously? Stashing cash under the mattress, just in case?

Well, first of all, Leah, paper currency will do you very little good when the big meatball comes down, so get that cash out of your mattress and put some canned goods in there. But no, I didn’t really modify my behavior all that much. I don’t think the world is going to end, and if it does, well, you know, what are you gonna do? Having a working flashlight and a couple bottles of water just won’t help all that much. The magnitude of this kind of catastrophe really defies preparation.

I have to ask – you treated the dog , Houdini, so kindly and gently, and J.T. Toussaint was so concerned with making sure the dog wouldn’t face the end of the world.  Do you have any pets?  What would you do with them, in the event of a major world disaster?

Thanks. Yeah, Houdini is based on my brother-in-law’s former dog, a cute, fearful little thing named Wylie. The whole thing is also a bit of an homage to On the Beach, in which there’s a haunting sequence where a woman carefully prepares her cat for the end. I don’t have pets myself, but I’ve got three kids and we just moved to a new house with a big yard, so I definitely see a dog in our future.

Now, my first purely selfish question: Great names!! I always struggle with character names myself (it took my husband and me the better part of five months to settle on a name for our daughter, so I guess it’s not surprising).  What’s your process for finding names? Or do your characters come to you, already named?

I have no process. I just sit there and try things out until the right name comes to me. I have definitely, definitely submitted manuscripts in which the name of a character changes a couple times over the course of the book, because I kept changing my mind about his or her name.

My second: Any advice to writers just starting out in the industry? You’ve been around the block already – any stumbling blocks about which you can warn us?

I’m old-fashioned in my belief that persistence and discipline will carry the day. Write and write and continue to write; read a lot, and learn to interrogate your own opinions—if you like something, ask yourself why you liked it, and if you didn’t, ask yourself why not? Work on your writing craft (what kinds of stories do I want to tell? how does one structure a long story to remain engaging?) but spend just as much time developing your writing process (where do I write best? at what time of day? with what materials?).

All-time favorite book? (It’s ok if you have to pick more than one – I can never quite narrow it down myself.)

Rosemary’s Baby and Middlemarch.

All-time favorite movie? (Ditto.)

The Blues Brothers.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever been approached by a fan? I saw Stephen King speak earlier this year and he told a story of an elderly bathroom attendant approaching him, while he was otherwise disposed in a stall, to tell him he loved his novels and wanted an autograph (this was back in the 70s, I think…nowadays, the attendant would be arrested for that!). Any similar stories?

That’s a great story—although because it’s King telling it, you sort of want the attendant to turn out to be a vampire and eat his eyeballs. But no, alas, though I am very grateful for whatever success I’ve enjoyed thus far in this difficult business, I am nowhere close to the elderly-men-approaching-you-in-the-john level!


Thanks so much to Ben for agreeing to do this interview! I've enjoyed it, and am sure my readers have, as well!

And if you want to know more about Ben, do visit his web site, buy his books, and support an author I admire.

1 comment:

Jenny Milchman said...

I love this: "Keep writing till the world blows up." And you also put into words something I struggle with every time I see those billboards that ask, Are you prepared?

Will a stockpile of Poland Spring stave off anything for very long--or just invite the zombies to come ravage it?

Here's hoping you're approached in a bathroom stall one day soon :)

Thanks for the great interview, Leah!

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