Monday, 27 February 2012

Robert Jackson Bennett interview

Last week I reviewed The Troupe, the third speculative fiction novel by the award-winning author Robert Jackson Bennett.  He was also kind enough to stop by for a chat.  Enjoy…

What came to you first; the story, the setting or George?  

RJB:  The story, long, long ago. It was one of those “confluence of ideas” things: I read in high school about Pythagoras and the “Music of the Spheres” – for he hypothesized that, if the celestial bodies are moving through space, then there must be friction, so they must make a hum in proportion to their size and orbit, which builds to one immense, endless chord. I was pretty involved in music at the time, so I immediately wondered if the chord was major or minor – for minor chords feel unresolved. So it would be a bit unhappy if the Music of the Spheres were minor. 

That sort of floated in my head for years, the idea of a chord or a song humming in the background of everything. I began to wonder if perhaps the song was maintaining the world, as if someone was singing the song and thus making the world at the same time, and if we could hear the song then we could decode it, and begin to understand... well, everything. 

It’s funny – I just now remember a conversation I had with my brother when we were children. I asked him if the whole world was a story God was telling a child, just making things up as He went along, and we were all forced to do as the story said. I don’t remember what my brother said, but I found the idea utterly terrifying at the time. 

So maybe I’ve had the idea for even longer than I think. 

How much research went into The Troupe? 

RJB:  A fair bit. I read a lot of the autobiographies of vaudeville stars, which were plentiful, for many of the later stars went on to become movie stars, and everyone wants to know about movie stars. The best two sources were Harpo Speaks and Much Ado About Me by Fred Allen. It was such an expansive and ever-changing industry that it was both hard to get a bead on and utterly absorbing. 

Each of the players has a unique story to tell – did you ever feel that one of the characters could support a novel of their own?  Kingsley might have been interesting, don’t you think? 

RJB:  Possibly. A lot of the fun of these stories, for me, is the mystery of it all, the idea that much is happening off-screen. A good hint can be worth a thousand times more than a good story, if done right. It’s tantalizing for the imagination to wonder what’s going on behind the scenes of the production. In a way, George gets a peek at this, but this is still obscured by exactly how much the other players allow him to see. 

As much as I loathe sequels and series titles, I can see some legs in Silenus’s travels – is that something you’d ever consider?  Does your publisher ever ask about follow-ons? 

RJB:  No, not really. I think they encourage me to be both as standalone and schizophrenic as possible in my books. For The Troupe, as always, I feel like hints are so much more fun than full stories, so the hints at Silenus’s past might make you think up something better than I could ever write. I do have ideas, naturally, and if I think they have enough meat on their bones I might one day go with them. But for now, I don’t have any intention of writing stories around The Troupe. 

You’ve written three novels now set in the early 1900s – is this a feature you’d like your readers to come to expect from a Robert Jackson Bennett book, or is this commonality a pre-planned masterstroke, because it would seem that by setting your work in these specific eras you’ve given yourself the freedom to play around with many different genres? 

RJB:  I really don’t know. My next book is contemporary, but also – how shall I put this – troubled or concerned with history. I did once conceptualize my first few novels as falling into a grouping of “The Bad Old Days,” in that they’re focused around a similar era and a usually corrupt, threatening world. I don’t really know if I’ve kept to that theme much. 

Maybe I just like hats, and smoking. I do think that my next few books will be completely different than these three – both in structure, tone, and content. 

Talking of tone, The Troupe is positively breezy compared to Mr Shivers – was that a conscious decision you made before starting, or did it emerge that way organically?

RJB:  It was pretty conscious. I'd written two stories about tough guys with guns, who are happy to perpetrate violence in uncaring worlds, and I'd kind of thought, "Enough. Enough of that. Let's do something else." I wanted to write something with more humor, and more energy - because Shivers and The Company Man were both pretty laconic. And I just didn't want to do that again.

So I wrote about an arrogant sixteen year old learning about himself and the world in show business. 

Doesn’t sound like you struggle for ideas.  How important is it that you maintain originality, especially in an industry that seems to promote a ‘clone culture’ within fiction?

RJB:  Well, it's weird. I value originality over nearly everything - I always want to try something new, rather than something old and dependable.

At the same time, I don't see my stuff as very new, because I can see what it draws from, so I think, 'Well this is just my version of that." To me, I'm just riffing on things I like.

However, I keep getting told that my stuff is unlike a lot of stuff out there. People have trouble comparing some of my books to others. One reviewer said that The Troupe wears its genre origins very light, which to me is a crazy thing to say, since it's got, like, the personifications of the cardinal directions walking and talking and hanging out in it. But that review would suggest that my genre stuff is not like the genre stuff he or she was reading at the time.

So, since to me I'm just riffing on things I like and seeing where it takes me, and since to others it seems like I'm coming up with wholly new stuff, one can conclude that very few people like or know about the things I like.

I like weird shit, is what I'm saying to you. And people mistake that for originality. Maybe. 

In Mr Shivers you use some powerful symbology in your examination of the ethos of death himself, and describe the novel as literary-ish.  In The Troupe there’s a certain Latin phrase that hints at a similar metaphysical exploration that could warrant another ‘ish’ – where do you stand in the old ‘Literary Vs Genre’ debate?  

RJB:  I don’t pay attention to the conflict – I presume it isn’t there, because it isn’t, not really. It’s a bunch of preconceived notions that we’re starting to shed the more porous our mediums get – TV bleeds into internet bleeds into writing, etc. I was once told, for example, that genre readers are some of the most aesthetically conservative readers out there – this is a statement I intend to disprove if it kills me. Or the genre readers. 

Sometimes we do seem dreadfully intent on keeping these preconceived notions, though – and genre, though it likes to play the victim in railing against the mainstream and literary establishment, has as many self-inflicted strictures as the mainstream inflicts on it in turn.  

A few people said that Mr. Shivers could not be a horror novel because it did not have enough violence in it, for example. Similarly, at one convention someone asked the panel what sort of symbolism they used – and they laughed and said they didn’t bother with that, they were genre writers, for God’s sakes. 

That’s a terribly myopic way to go about looking at fiction, I think. Perhaps we must be dragged kicking and screaming into thoughtfulness. 

What’s an average week in the writing life of Robert Jackson Bennett? 

RJB:  Jesus, it’s changed so much recently I don’t know how to define “average.” I write in the gaps in my days, in the borders and limits of waking hours, sometimes during lunch. I write like starving men eat meals, because I don’t know when I’ll get the chance again. 

What are you working on at the moment, and can I squeeze a title out of you? 

RJB:  Sure! It’s got the working title of American Elsewhere. It’s sort of like Twin Peaks meets H.P. Lovecraft. It’s about an ex-cop named Mona Bright who finds out she’s inherited a house in New Mexico, and discovers her mother led a life she never knew existed. The house exists in a town based around a defunct lab much like Los Alamos in the 40’s and 50’s, and the town feels as if it’s never left that era. Soon Mona begins to wonder exactly who the residents are, and how they came here; and she begins to wonder why, exactly, the town is starting to feel like a home she never knew she had. 

Finally, how’s the kid? 

RJB:  Fat, loud, happy, and entirely too clever for his own goddamn good.

Now, anybody who’s a fan of film will probably be aware of Inside the Actors Studio and the questionnaire that has been popularised by the multi-talented James Lipton. The questionnaire up till now has been unfairly reserved for movie stars, so I thought it was time that writers had a crack at it.  Here’s how Robert did:  

The Lipton Questionnaire

What is your favorite word?

RBJ: “Slimsy.”

What is your least favorite word?

RJB:  “That.” It feels necessary, but so often it just fucks things up.

What turns you on?

RJB:  Spontaneity.

What turns you off?

RJB:  Poor conversation.

What sound or noise do you love?

RJB:  Rain running through my gutters.

What sound or noise do you hate?

RJB:  Someone who’s lost their voice trying to speak.

What is your favorite curse word?

RJB:  “Cunt” – the absolute hydrogen bomb of words. Mutual destruction is ensured. The vilification of it lends it so much awful power.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

RJB:  Gardener.

What profession would you not like to do?

RJB:  Accountancy.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

RJB:  Probably nothing. I don’t think God should need to tell us things like a secretary at a front desk. It would suggest there is a separation there, an ignorance that must be breached, and if He’s God, why would He allow such a thing? I’d prefer my God with a bit of Zen to him. Silence is often wiser than any word.

An odd tack for a writer to take, but writing is often more about allowing silences than filling them in.

Robert, good talking to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment