There’s a buzz about Ben Winters. His latest novel, The Last Policeman, takes crime fiction into the pre-apocalyptic future, a novel perfectly timed for the upcoming Mayan Apocalypse. It’s so popular, it’s made Boingboing’s gift guide and Slate’s 2012 staff picks
Late to the party as always, we’ve interviewed a candid Ben about his his books, the industry, and pork butt. Enjoy the read.
Ed: Last meal before the asteroid strikes. What do you eat?
BHW: My wife and I have decided to stop eating meat at the turn of the year, and my only major reservation has to do with her delicious recipe for a slow-roasted pork butt, based on one by the celebrity chef David Chang. I am already mourning the looming disappearance of this incredible dish from my life, so if the world was really about to die by fire, I’d want to eat that one more time.
Tell us a little about how you got your start. Was Sense, Sensibility and Sea Monsters your first attempt at a novel? Do you think these kind of contemporary mash ups are a good place for an author to cut her teeth?
No, I can’t in good conscience advise anyone to write a “mash-up” novel. It turned out great for me, but I fear the vogue for these zany pastiche novels (which started with my book, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and its predecessor, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, both the brain children of Jason Rekulak at Quirk Books) has passed, and I wouldn’t want any aspiring writers wasting time carefully crafting Dr. Zhivago and Mr. Hyde, or whatever, only to have a bunch of publishing-house marketing departments saying, “That’s so 2010.”
Having said that, writing Sea Monsters (and my second stab at the genre, Android Karenina) was a very useful experience for me, as a budding novelist. To write an effective book-length parody, I had to get deeply familiar with the structure and tone of the originals, and that was a super-valuable exercise. Take a really good book—like Sense and Sensibility, or Anna Karenina, or, House of Mirth or Ragtime or Rosemary’s Baby (my favorite book), and make note cards for the chapters; chart out the character development; see where the author builds tension and where she releases it; tear the thing apart and see how it works. At the very least, whenever you are reading fiction, be aware—don’t just say “I like this,” ask yourself why you like it. That’s your job, as a reader who is also a writer.
Here at Needle there are two readings of Palace’s character. One is that his commitment to his job is a kind of pathological refusal to face reality. The second reading insists that in the face of helplessness the quest for some kind of truth is all that can keep you sane. How do you see him? Do you think there is merit in either of these readings?
I will first say that I am deeply honored—moved, really—to hear of people in the literary community hanging out arguing over the motivations of a policeman that I invented. So, seriously, thank you. And I do think there is merit in both of your readings, and I’ve certainly heard them both from other readers. I also got an email from a reader who said she was in love withDetectivePalaceand wanted to marry him, and that made my day.
Last Policeman might be described as your breakout novel. Do you feel as if you’ve ‘made it?’
Thanks, and I have no idea, I really don’t. The Last Policeman has definitely gotten more attention than other things I’ve done, and I’m extremely proud of it. I’m sure that if Ben from five years ago could see me now he would say, “Wow, you did it! You accomplished what you set out to accomplish!” (He might say “we did it”—it depends on the details of the time-travel mechanism that brought him here). But of course I can’t be happy; of course I can’t relax; of course I always have to be worried about what comes next. That’s my pathology, though it can be a useful one.
In recent interviews you have shared some helpful advice about writing. How do you see the industry developing. What changes d you predict may occur…outside of a colossal asteroid marking us all irrelevant?
This question fills me with anxiety. I don’t really have a strong opinion about the rapidly changing book business, though I feel like I should. It’s like—it’s not hard enough to write novels, I also have to figure out how to sell them in the age of digital reproduction? I do sense that it’s getting harder for new writers, because it’s harder online than in stores to browse through unfamiliar titles, and I think that’s a huge bummer. I also know that whatever changes are happening, they are happening fast — a month ago my publisher asked me to guess what percent of our The Last Policeman sales were digital, and I said “Fifty percent?” and he said “Eighty-nine.” Welcome to the future!
How about your future. Where will we find you in six months time?
In six months I’ll be waiting for the second Policeman novel to come out and busily writing the third one. In a year or so, I will have completed my destruction of the Earth and be looking around to see what comes after that.
You can follow Ben H Winters on twitter @benhwinters
He also has a website, www.benhwinters.com and is published through Quirk Books. The Amazon link is here