Friday, April 26, 2013

Interview: Robert Jackson Bennett

I love interviews, but I have to admit I approached my interview with Robert Jackson Bennett with more than my usual level of trepidation. After reading The Troupe which is currently at the top of my rankings for the best novel I've read this year, and perusing his blog for what felt like hours, I was convinced I might not be up for the task. But I put my big boy pants on and soldiered on. The results are, in my opinion, one of the best interviews I've done to date. Robert's answers are revealing, thought provoking and I am grateful that he took the considerable amount of time necessary to do this interview in the longer, more conversational format I prefer.  I hope you all enjoy reading this interview, half as much as I enjoyed conducting it. 

52 Reviews: The Troupe definitely defies easy classification into any one genre, feeling as if it would be equally at home on any number of bookstore shelves. And reading through the synopsis' of your other work, the lack of easy labels seems to be a theme. Is this genre blending a conscious decision on your part from the planning stages, or is it a natural extension of your writing process?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I would say that I definitely don't go into anything planning for it to be a specific mix of things. It's not quite like a cocktail recipe, with 2 parts horror, 1 part family drama, 1 part fantasy, shake and add a dash of bitters. 

On the whole, it never really occurs to me to write my books to be anything than what they wind up being. And it never occurs to me that a book shouldn't try and be as much as it can - and sometimes the genre system seems to be more about what a book isn't rather than what it is. Any denial-based system isn't going to produce anything that's very much fun, I don't think.

At times, I sometimes think of the genre system as a soda machine at a fast food restaurant, with lots of nozzles, each with their own brand and label: only some are labeled MYSTERY, others FANTASY, others SCI-FI, and still others HORROR. This is all very efficient, but the real issue is, when someone walks up to the machine and pulls the lever on that nozzle, they know exactly what they're going to get - and that's really no fun at all.

But at the end of the day, genre isn't in the hands of the writer. There's an Orson Welles quote I like to reference for this: "I'm the bird, you're the ornithologist." Why ask me what my genre is? That's up to you, the market, and the critical community.

52 Reviews: Given this lack of attention to genre and seemingly organic writing process, take us through the process by which a story seed grows into a full fledged RJB novel. Do you start with characters first, or plot, or something completely different? Do the various elements of the story simply present themselves, or do you get to that place authors talk about where the story seems to tell itself? 

Robert Jackson Bennett: That's a pretty tough question. Writing is like building a house from the inside out: you don't know how it actually looks to people on the street, and you usually have to fix a bunch of stuff once you're done. So it's not quite a surgical procedure, nor is it as highly planned and coordinated as, say, a military strike.

Writing, for me, is more or less like making a stew from scratch: what I do is get water bubbling, then go around finding things I like, figuring out how to prepare them for the stew, and throwing them in. I considered writing a very long post for all the things that went into making American Elsewhere: various types of architecture, exotica music, Edward Hopper paintings, Mad Men, Cheever, and so on and so on, until the list got so long and so burdensome that eventually I wasn't sure what actually inspired American Elsewhere, and what I just sort of liked. But I'm not sure if there's a difference.

So I more or less just grab things that really strike me. A lot of these are images - I tend to be very visual. What I do is string together a series of images I like that feel connected by mood, ambiance, and tone. Then, usually, I start thinking about them in a way that dovetails with an idea that's been concerning for me - for The Troupe, it was the nature and purpose of art, art as a way of looking at the world and at each other. For American Elsewhere, it was the poignant, invented nostalgia that is the American Dream. For City of Stairs, the novel I'm working now, it's history, and how it makes us - and how we also make history, tampering with it and editing it, so we so often make ourselves. 

Then it's a matter of simply writing it. That's the fun part.

I draw inspiration less and less from fiction, unfortunately. Part of it is the time investment: between a baby, a job, and writing, I have less and less time to read. When I do read, I'm chiefly looking for technique. Content can come from anywhere - see the list above - but technique is something that you can only find in reading. So if I pick something up, and it's not showing me a new way to tell or story, then there's a very good chance I won't finish it.

52 Reviews: The Big Idea seems to be a large part of your writing process. Would you say it informs every other aspect of the novel? And if so, how do you balance the needs of your chosen theme with the plot, characters, and all of the other usual suspects?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I'd say the Big Idea probably does dictate everything I do in a story. Every aspect of the novel should explore the Big Idea in some fashion. Usually, this isn't hard to do. A character that's fun or has a purpose in the plot can usually be bent or expanded so that, like a lens, they're redirected to focus on the Big Idea.

I usually sketch out the plot at the start so it's a road leading right into the middle of the Big Idea. But it's never solid - part of what I do when I write is figure out how I feel about things. Characters and plots are like nets I cast into the sea, trying to catch the way I feel about a thing. If I do it right, it's still plenty engaging.

52 Reviews:  Can you give an example of an instance where you bent and expanded a character's arc to better focus on the Big Idea of the novel? And how much or little do those changes end up affecting the plot you have laid out?

Robert Jackson Bennett: Sure. In City of Stairs, the work I'm currently editing, the primary friction is between history and the present. How much does history affect what's happening now? How much of history is invented or rearranged, right now, here in the present? And I realized I had one major character who didn't quite have a goal, or a purpose - he didn't have an argument one way or the other on the Big Idea. 

So I thought about it, and realized, "Wait, my main character is fighting for the present way of life, and her opponents are fighting for the past - so who's fighting for the future? Who's the big picture character with the long term view that wants to see things change for the better?"

And right away, I realized it was him. So I completely rewrote his story line so that he's the one who's the voice of change, the voice of the future, which neither the past nor the present really wants to listen to.

52 Reviews: Earlier, you mentioned not finding inspiration in fiction but rather finding technique. What single aspect of writing do you think is most important for your particular brand of storytelling? And what technique or techniques would you recommend fledgling writers attempt pay particular attention to? 

Robert Jackson BennettI would say that voice is by far and away the most important part of my storytelling, and it's probably also what I look for in other people's stuff. Voice has the most immediate effect on the reader, more than any other quality: plot, character, and theme all take time to have an effect, but voice is right there on page one, waiting for you. And a great voice can make readers feel enchanted even when reading about an aimless plot, unbelievable characters, and dull theme, believe it or not.

Voice is the hardest thing to develop, naturally. It's also the most vague and abstract quality of fiction: you can pinpoint where a character or plot goes wrong, but voice is much more insubstantial, existing between the words. The only advice I can give on voice is that it takes time to develop, and mimicry is quite important: try writing in a variety of styles, hone your instincts, and figure out what's working, and when it works - because it won't work all the time.

52 Reviews: I have to ask, if mimicry is so important to finding and developing your voice, which authors' voices did you try and emulate in the process of finding your own distinct narrative voice? What lessons did you learn through that process and was there any one author you found that influenced you more than others?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I would say that initially the first voices I tried to mimic were Cormac McCarthy and John le Carre. The former is so obvious in some of my earliest works that it threatens to become parody. In later works, I think I tried to fold in a little bit of Neil Gaiman, John Crowley, David Mitchell, and so on.

52 Reviews: Tell me more about the process of creating characters for your novels. In The Troupe, I was most impressed with the layered portrayal of each and every principle character. They felt like real people, a little rough around the edges and world weary like so many of us. I know that you've said you often bend and refocus your characters to have them better highlight the Big Idea, but what steps go into their creation? Do you base them on real world figures from your own experiences or historical figures, or some psychological archetype? 

Robert Jackson Bennett: Well, I usually start with an image, like I do for most things, and then I have to nail down the voice of the character. A lot of this is decided in the first scene with the character, which often serves as the introductory scene for me, the writer, just as much as it does for the reader. For readers, they need to know as much as they can (or need to know) about a character from their very first interaction, so when a writer writes that first scene, it's usually (or for me at least) a crucial decision point about this character's perspective, their bearing, the way they react to things, etc. This is reflected both in how they carry themselves, how they're revealed to the reader (sitting, standing, aware of the attention of the narrator, etc), and then I need to figure out how their voice engages with this reveal.

A lot of it is talking out loud like the character. I do this in my head all the time when I'm doing menial tasks, like sorting laundry. If you can mimic your character's voice and attitude, then it becomes less a process of artifice and invention, and more akin to, "Well, of course Colette would say that, that's who Colette is."

52 Reviews: You've talked a lot about images in terms of your creative process. Can you give us a more specific answer about how an image or series of images influences the creation of a character? Take Harry Silenus for example. What can you tell us about the images that led to his creation and development?

Robert Jackson Bennett: I had two images in mind for Silenus - in one, he's in performer mode, with his dark red coat, black top hat, and white gloves, taking up every inch of the spotlight. He's every bit the veteran performer, bringing such stage presence that he seems to fill up the entire theater.

This is essentially a stock image: there are countless films, paintings, and books about the stage that feature someone like this. One could simply label it the "show leader" image, and it would work pretty well as an archetype for exactly who this character is.

But, then there's the other image for Silenus: sitting behind his desk, smoking, drinking, slouching, and casting a leery eye on whoever happens to be sitting across from him. I have a fascination with this room setting - I notice I have a lot of scenes in my books with desks, and a quiet struggle occurring between people on opposite sides of them. It's a very theatrical, very clear arrangement. But for Silenus, this scene is played in direct contrast to who he is on the stage: he's filthy, truculent, and foul-mouthed, a far cry from the mannered performer we see in the theater, a cut-throat wheeler and dealer who isn't ashamed to voice his darkest, nastiest thoughts. There's a lot of Al Swearengen in Silenus, really.

However, it's worth noting that though the scenes play in conflict with one another, there's some parallels: a desk is often like a stage, a platform one person uses to address an audience.

52 Reviews: I'd like to circle back and ask about something you said in our first question about genre being more about what a book isn't than what it is. Would you agree that genre is really more of a subtle marketing ploy than anything that makes a statement about the books content? One also wonders if being pigeon holed as a writer doesn't help in increasing sales in some way, except in the rare cases where an author's popularity is so profound as to become its own demographic. To piggy back a question on to that statement, would you classify writing in such a way as to include so many disparate elements that are often synonymous with genre as an attempt to achieve the later by gaining a reputation that crosses genre lines? 

Robert Jackson Bennett: I'd say that genre is, at heart, just a simple tagging system that allows readers to pull from a select pool of work knowing that whatever they get will align with a pre-determined, codified set of expectations. The only difference is, frequently the authors are complicit in delivering what's promised. 

This can be unintentional - authors, after all, were readers first, and they draw on what they read, so if what they read was created within the genre system, then what they write has already been molded by the genre system, to whichever extent; or, it can be intentional, where an author actually sits down and says, "I'd like to write a detective novel, so I need to go over my checklist of what people expect of that," and then they write within these rules. The latter likely occurs with the writer's expectation that giving readers exactly what they want is good for sales.

In either situation, when you really think about the genre system, the issue is one of authority: who's in charge? Is it the reader, who's coming to the shelf with a set of expectations for what they want to see? Is it the marketer, for perpetuating fixed ideas of what certain types of books are, in order to capitalize on a fixed market? Or is the writer, who has the option of either writing whatever they feel, or writing within the system in order to give everyone what they want? It's unclear.

However, I do feel that, in terms of creating a devoted audience, you don't want to think poorly of your reader. In other words: most readers have a nose for horseshit. If what you're making isn't genuine, if it's all artifice and contrivance, if it doesn't come from someplace real, then, I think readers will detect it, and either toss it aside, or read it and forget it.

52 Reviews: One of the things that I liked best about The Troupe is it never pandered its message to the reader. I was left to determine my own interpretation about the overall meaning of the story. Only now after some comments I've read both on your blog and during this interview do I have any real sense of your intentions as a storyteller. In many ways, what I have experienced personally colored my reaction to George's quest for a father and the revelations about family and identity that were revealed to him along the way. Were there bits of your own personal experience that wound their way into the characters and narrative along the way? 

Robert Jackson Bennett: Well, when I wrote The Troupe, I wasn't a dad yet. I think my wife had maybe - *maybe* - just become pregnant somewhere in the middle of writing The Troupe. (I remember the dates of the pregnancy far more than I do writing stages - writing is a vague, never ending fog) And I usually get a strong idea for my arcs in the story well before I actually write it, so in regards to the big framework I had planned, my own fatherhood actually might not have been a big factor.

However, it might have been a big factor in rewrites. Rewrites is the real action of writing - sculptors need raw stone to chisel away at, but for writers, what many don't realize is that the first draft is that big hunk of raw stone, self-produced. Then you see a thing in that stone, the thing you want to see, and there's a matter of chipping away at it until you see what you want.

In regards to messages, I find the most writing inspiration comes from subjects about which the writer feels intensely ambiguous. A book shouldn't be a clean statement about anything anymore than a single life should. There should be enough material in the book that resonates with enough readers in such a way that they should be pulled in multiple directions at once.

If you do a good job, that is.

52 Reviews: For my last question, I'd like to try something a little something different. Let's call it a Writer's Soapbox. Here's your chance to pontificate on your topic of choice, promote an upcoming project, or speculate on the significance of the Pope's hat in relation to crop circles. The floor is yours, do your worst. 

Robert Jackson Bennett: Sure. Here's a fun game that translates how a writer hears a few example questions, each of which I have heard at some point in time:

"What sort of writer are you?" is translated as, "How would you sum up the whole of your career, some of which you can't even remember, in a handful of words?"

"What do you write?" is translated as, "How do you think a multitude of other people you've never met in your life would categorize your work?"

"Is there a movie deal?" is translated as, "Are you aware that you picked the wrong medium to work in?"

"I have a story for you to write!" is translated as, "I would like you to use your time and experience for my own ideas, which I just assume are wildly original!"

"Should I have heard of you?" is translated as, "I will now arbitrate your self-worth, as well as how you will feel for the rest of the day."

"I've never heard of your book, but is it like THIS book which I really like?" is translated as, "I am uninterested in you and the things you've done, and wish I was speaking to someone else right now."

"I want to be a writer. I hate reading, though," is translated as, "I don't know anything about anything, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't do everything!"


  1. I don't know which is cooler, that Robert Jackson Bennett has a new book coming out, or that that was one freakin' awesome interview.

    Matt, have you read American Elsewhere yet? If not, you need to, it was amazing!

  2. Thanks, this interview was an absolute joy. Thanks for stopping in.

    I've not read American Elsewhere yet, but it's totally on the list.