Interview – Robert Jackson Bennett

I am very excited to have an interview for your delightful reading consumption today. As you know, I have just finished reading (and reviewing, and loving) The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett. I decided to ask him a few questions. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s just about the most timely man on the planet. The questions came back, answers and all a day later. What a guy.

A little about the author:

Robert Jackson Bennett‘s 2010 debut Mr. Shivers won the Shirley Jackson award as well as the Sydney J Bounds Newcomer Award. His second novel, The Company Man, is currently nominated for a Philip K. Dick Award as well as an Edgar Award. His third novel, The Troupe, arrived in stores on the 21st of February.

Onto the questions:

I have only read one of your books, The Troupe, and I loved it. I look forward to reading more, especially since you have been nominated, and have won, so many awards for your work. Your success as an author must be incredibly gratifying, but, especially at first, did it shock you that your work was so incredibly well received? 

 

Yes, absolutely. I had no idea how this was going to go. Mr. Shivers was such a violent, stark book, and so much of the supernatural elements were so subdued, that I felt certain it wouldn’t be accepted by either the genre culture, or the “literary establishment.” The fact that it did as well as it did remains quite a surprise to me.

 

Another reviewer, Jason Baki, mentioned that your novels all focus so much on what he calls the “American myth,” meaning your novels all focus on a piece of Americana, like the American entertainer in The Troupe, and he cites the Great Depression and American corporate power as well. When so many speculative fiction novels seem to have roots in legends, lore and cultures from other countries, your focus on Americana seems different than the norm. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on why you focus on the “American myth” rather than other cultures. 

 

Well, I think most myths focus at least in part on creation – either the creation of the whole world, or creation of a part of it, like how we got fire, or where the rivers came from, and so on. There’s an innate desire in us to reimagine or reexamine where we came from, to figure out how all this got started, and I think a lot of that is born of a need to figure out why we are where we are now.Myths often work off of features or qualities familiar to their audiences – fire and rivers, for example, would have been important parts of day-to-day life in the ancient world – so it seemed natural to me to reach into the big, rattling basement of the American subconscious, that huge collection of preconceptions we have about ourselves, and use those big, familiar stories and scenes to tell old myths. In a way, it’s new myths bending to match old ones.

 

I mentioned in my review of The Troupe that it’s a book that seems to not fit completely into any one genre, and that’s one thing that I love about it because you diverged from the typical and blazed your own trail. However, being hard to pin down is also a gamble because some readers like to be able to divide their books into organized categories. Does “blazing your own trail” make you nervous about the kind of reception you’ll get? 

 

Well, not too nervous anymore, because this is my third time and I think I generally know how it goes now. I’ll say that I don’t go out of my way to write stories different from what’s out there – and I’m not entirely convinced that I do – nor am I consciously trying to ape any other writer, genre or not. I’m just writing stories I know I’d like to read.But to most people my work does seem very different, and so it has had some trouble finding its audience, although The Troupe is receiving a very positive groundswell of support from bloggers. Some of my stuff has been a hit with some critical establishments, and I’m very appreciative of that, but it’s still a far cry from penetrating the mainstream, to any degree. I initially found this frustrating, but, you know, there are many worse things than getting to publish books that some people – not a lot, but definitely not none – really like.

 

In general, how long does it take you to write a book – from idea conception to publication?

It’s very hard for me to tell. I usually have my idea for the next one well before I have the current one finished. So I start writing it in the back of my head, sort of like highway hypnosis, and then it’s just a matter of typing, I suppose. And that takes about nine months to a year.

 

The Troupe surprised me, in part because there are so many layers and so much depth to your plot and characters, yet you still manage to fit a whole story comfortably into one novel. In a genre that seems to thrive off of trilogies and series that go on forever in length, your epic stories packed into a stand alone novel stands out quite a bit, and is incredibly refreshing. Why do you tend to write stand alones? Do you have plans to write a series at a later date? Is it hard to pack an epic story into a stand alone? 

 

Well, I’ll say that I use novels primarily to explore a single idea. These ideas vary – and the reader might disagree on some of these – but in Mr. Shivers I felt I was looking at the relationship between death and life, in The Company Man I was looking at the nature of progress and the individual, and in The Troupe I was looking at the nature of interpretation – interpreting art, relationships, life, anything. In a way, I write novels to figure out what I think about things. And I somewhat feel like this is the novel in its purest form – one big, cohesive journey through an idea.As such, I never really feel the need to go on into a second or third book to keep thinking about it. A book is like an essay, to me, expounding on a thesis, and eventually you’ve said what you wanted to say, and you move on.

It can get hard, especially since I feel like I’m looking at bigger and bigger things. The Troupe is my longest published book – my fourth, which is unpublished, is quite a bit longer than that. But it’s about some pretty big stuff. I’m planning to scale it back a bit for my fifth – maybe.

 

The characters in The Troupe really stand out to me, probably because they are all so realistic and each of them seems to be incredibly, eerily haunted. Do you personally identify with any one character more than others? 

 

Like a lot of writers, I think you’ll find that all the well-written characters are a part of the person who wrote them. So it is incredibly difficult to identify with one more than others, since they’re all me.George, however, has a lot of similarities with what I was like myself at sixteen. I didn’t have any daddy issues or anything, but I was a know-it-all little shit. However, I don’t think this is uncommon for sixteen-year-olds.

 

The Troupe is a rather adult book, meaning the plot is mature and while I don’t necessarily think a teenager shouldn’t read it, I think adults probably would enjoy it more. However, the protagonist is George, a sixteen-year-old boy, struggling with all the normal things a sixteen-year-old struggles with, all the while trying to make it in an incredibly adult world. That’s a really interesting touch and gives a very mysterious and layered novel a little refreshing and light innocence that the reader wouldn’t expect. Why did you make the protagonist sixteen rather than an adult like most of the other characters? 

 

Part of it was that I was just bored with writing Tough Guys. I consciously made a decision that I didn’t want to write a book about hard-bitten guys with guns, and I wanted to look at life from a different angle. So I chose a young man.But another part of it is that The Troupe is about understanding a little more of the world, and making your peace with it. All of the characters, to some extent, are struggling against the world, and insisting it’s one way when it’s quite the other, or is no way at all. They do this through lies and performance, and George’s are perhaps the most harmless and the most pathetic, claiming the wisdom and maturity of a fifty-something man when he’s obviously a naive teenager.

 

But this emergence of understanding, and struggling to take the whole of the world in your arms and try to figure it out, is very much a young person’s story. It’s a bittersweet journey, as growing up invariably is, as you find out how the world both fails and exceeds your expectations, and you understand what you’ve lost and what you’ve gained. You’re somewhere new, but you can never go back to where you were.

 

The Troupe uses vaudeville as a stepping stone to get to a much larger, more intricate plot. Vaudeville is fascinating, and many people (myself included) probably know next to nothing about it. A lot of people might equate vaudeville to the circus, but it’s not, and you really don’t spend much time with vaudeville anyway. Why did you choose vaudeville instead of a circus? 

 

I’ve always wanted to write about vaudeville. It’s such a weird, weird period – any act would fly, so long as it put people in seats. It was, as someone clever put it, the first moment of cultural cross-pollination in America. Cities opened up, people toured the railways, and everyone saw things they’d never seen before. With something like that as a possibility, it never occurred to me to write about a circus.But I think traveling and transience also speaks a lot to the human condition. We think of our lives as a journey – we’re traveling at all times, moving away from something and moving toward something else. At the same time, our journey is filled with oddness, lies, misconceptions, and twisted truths – much like the act of a vaudeville house.

 

You wrote a really interesting blog post about your struggles with stuttering and the rage you deal with in your own life, and with your child. You also mention that stuttering might be the reason why you write. As I mentioned before, I noticed that all of your characters in The Troupe are haunted somehow, they are all suffering and trying to carry their burden the best they can. Is there a bit of your own personal struggle with stuttering in each of your characters and the battles they face, or is that my own interpretation? 

 

Possibly. I think my previous two books were shaped more by my frustrations and rather pessimistic nature than The TroupeThe Troupe is very much a book about peace, and hope. It’s not as violent, and it’s got much more empathy. At the same time, life beats up everyone, and eventually everyone has to reconcile the past and the present. I don’t imagine I’ll ever have many characters who don’t feel this way, in some manner.

 

What is your background with writing? How did you get to be where you are today? 

 

I think I’ve always been writing. I became an obsessive reader around age 8 or 9, and I started writing variations on the stories I was reading way back when. Sometimes when I was disappointed with a book, I’d rewrite it to live up to my expectations. And this – writing books I wanted to read – probably got me here.

 

Are there any future writing plans you’d care to share? 

 

Sure! I have a novella coming out soon from Subterranean Press called, “To Be Read Upon Your Waking,” about a young aristocrat buying the ruins of a cathedral in Post-War France. It’s sort of a meditation on time, and how two different times can affect one another in ways they do and do not know.

 

And my fourth book, American Elsewhere, is due out in February of next year. It follows ex-cop Mona Bright, who, after a couple of rough post-divorce years, finds out she’s inherited a house that once belonged to her mother in Wink, New Mexico. But though every map and every official says the town doesn’t exist, Mona finds they’re wrong – Wink is a curiously pleasant little town constructed around a now-defunct government laboratory, like Los Alamos. Eventually she starts to wonder who these people are, how they came here, and why she’s beginning to feel like this is the home she never knew she had.

 

Any last words for your fans and readers of this blog? 

 

Nope! Thanks so much for having me, and thank you for the review. I really appreciate it.

 

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this! 

 

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