Mr. Bennett’s debut novel, Mr. Shivers was published in 2010, and while that novel was winning literary awards left and right, he was busy publishing his second novel, The Company Man. His fourth novel, American Elsewhere is scheduled to hit store shelves this coming winter. And beyond all of that wonderfulness, he agreed to let me ask him a bunch of strange questions. What a gentleman!
Everyone, please give a big round of applause to Robert Jackson Bennett!
LRR: The Troupe focuses around Vaudeville performers and troupes that traveled the country in the early 1900’s from theater to theater. Did you spend any time in the theater when you were younger? Are you a fan of music and theater of the early 1900’s?
RJB: I was a musician, actually – a classically trained violist. So I know a fair bit about prodigies like George, having met a few in my time. Some were hilariously self-involved, like George, and others were like the little circus dogs who only know how to perform, and haven’t ever done anything else. It could be a bit sad, in a way.
I’m a huge fan of early 20th century comedy – the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton… I still haven’t seen that many comedians who can do so much with so little.
Some people don’t get the Marx Brothers. Personally, I don’t get people who don’t get the Marx Brothers.
LRR: Did you always want to be a writer? If not, what got you started down the path to “Hi, I’m an author!”
RJB: I kind of think so. I think my parents might have raised me to be a writer without knowing it. My first word was “Melville,” if that gives you any idea, because that was our dog’s name. They were always giving me books and discussing them with me. It was expected of you to be culturally informed. And at some point in time I started thinking up variations of the things they were showing me or books I read on my own, trying to make them better and make them the sort of story I wanted to read, and eventually this just translated into writing.
LRR: What authors and books have inspired you over the years?
RJB: Oh, geez. A bunch. I grew up reading Stephen King, Madeleine L’Engel, Roald Dahl; then it translated into Neil Gaiman, John le Carre, Susana Clarke, David Foster Wallace; and lately I’ve been reading a lot of David Mitchell and Katherine Ann Porter.
I’m chiefly fascinated by work that examines one idea or a set of ideas. I still think of a novel as the most fun kind of thought experiment, trying to glean truths from fabulous lies, setting things in motion and smashing them together and seeing what’s left and what isn’t. I’d say most of my novels fall under this category.
LRR: So far your novels are all stand alones. Thank you for that, by the way. I’ve been swimming in series lately, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read a book that actually has an ending. That said, do you have any plans for series, or books that take place in the same world but are only loosely related?
RJB: Currently, no, I don’t have any plans for a series. I think if you’re subscribing to the “novel as thought experiment” idea, a series isn’t going to work for you, because experiments have to have an end so you can examine the results. And whenever I think up novels that would work as series, I always find myself thinking that they’d work much better as a comic or a TV series, because those mediums are much better suited to story-by-installments, where you can literally drop in with the characters and spend a day with them and not feel cheated by the plot. I can’t think of many book series where you have a “hang-out” installment.
RJB: It’s about an ex-cop named Mona Bright who finds out she’s inherited a house when her father dies – but not a house her father owned, but her mother, who committed suicide when Mona was just a child. The deed says it’s located in Wink, New Mexico, but every map and official says the town doesn’t exist. But Mona finds they’re wrong, and the town does exist, a queerly perfect, peaceful little burg sheltered under a large mesa that once played host to a Los Alamos-like government laboratory. Yet the longer Mona stays in Wink, the more she wonders – who was her mother? Where did the people of the town come from, and why do they stay? And, most of all, why does she feel like she’s come back to a home she never had?
It’s a bit of an exploration of nostalgia, and happiness. Wink feels like a town out of another time, a place that never lost any of its Atomic-Age-optimism. It feels like the sort of place where a lot of the Golden Age science fiction was written, when people still felt the future would be much better than the present. And then you drop in someone who’s been beaten up by the contemporary age, someone who’s seen dreams fall apart and is a bit bitter and cynical over them, someone who wants what Wink offers yet understand it might not quite be true… It should be very interesting.
LRR: Reviews of Mr. Shivers compared you to Stephen King, and I’m not the first reviewer of The Troupe to compare you to Neil Gaiman. how does it feel to be compared to those literary giants?
RJB: Weird. It always has. The Neil Gaiman comparison I get, especially with The Troupe. I understand that one – Gaiman was, in a lot of ways, the writer who made me realize there were people out there to read the kind of stuff I’d always wanted to write. I didn’t know it, but I’d accidentally read some of his comics when I was 10, and I was entranced with them – it wasn’t until later, when I was 18 or so, that I read his books, and slowly figured out I already knew this guy.
I have to confess, the Stephen King comparison has always kind of confused me, though. I grew up reading King, so I’d be a liar if I said he wasn’t an influence, but I just don’t see the similarities in the books I’ve published. I can sort of tell which writers inspired which storylines – Cormac McCarthy inspired Mr. Shivers, John le Carre inspired The Company Man, and Gaiman (though chiefly it was Susana Clarke, but the two are connected) inspired The Troupe. I suppose I’m doing variations on my favorites, as most young writers do, but Stephen King just, well, isn’t on the list yet. It’s very odd.
I sort of think they compare me to King because parts of my stuff are scary, and the other guy who writes scary stuff is Stephen King, so that means you’re like that guy.
LRR: From all my blathering on the blog and twitter, it’s pretty obvious I loved The Troupe. As readers and lovers of good books, what can we do to help get you out from under the radar? What can we do to make sure that in 10 years, people are comparing up and coming authors to Robert Jackson Bennett?
RJB: Well, keep reading is a start. I intend to never disappoint, so hopefully everything I write will be satisfying to some extent. But, really, the book trade functions almost exclusively by word of mouth – people talk about things because those things are being talked about. So if you read my stuff, and like it, the best way to help it is to talk about it, and add to the conversation.
LRR: You recently posted a, umm, rather alluring image on your website. Are you able to give us any details regarding some sort of upcoming ridiculousness?
RJB: It involves an ascot, a rose, and a journey into ourselves. I can guarantee you won’t walk away unchanged. You’ll know more in the next few days.
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Well, there you have it folks. Get out there and do those things you do when you come across an author you just can’t get enough of: Read their books, talk about their books, blog about their books, tweet about their books. Talk to your local booksellers about getting copies, request that your local library buy a copy. And stay tuned to Robert Jackson Bennett’s website for something involving a rose, an ascot, and a journey. For me, I plan on picking up some John le Carre and reading quite a bit more Robert Jackson Bennett.