American Elsewhere is your first book with a contemporary setting; was there any correlation between that and the use of the present tense in the narrative?
Possibly. I knew I wanted this book to have a sense of immediacy to it, a hyper-reality that would mark it as very different. Part of this is because of the setting – New Mexico in Spring or Summer often threatens to overwhelm the senses – and part of it is because of the nature of Wink, which is hyper-real in its own way.
However, I also knew I wanted the voice to feel more contemporary and discursive than a lot of my other books, as we’d be inside Mona’s head much more than we’re in those of my other protagonists. This is probably an affectation that’s a little less common in historical fiction – but that’s a pretty broad statement.
What governed the contemporary setting? Was this simply a tale that could only be told this way?
I’d say so. I knew that in this book I wanted to examine an idea of America through the lens of nostalgia, and for nostalgia to work for a contemporary audience, you have to be grounded in the present. (I don’t think that I, personally, would understand the nostalgia those of the 1930s might feel for the 1880s, for example.)
But this is also a book that’s very obsessed with newness, with freshness: I think that is, more or less, what made the West, and the car culture, and the modernism of Mid-Century America so attractive. Staging that newness in a situation where it’s already old was a fun thing to do.
There are a number of nods to H.P. Lovecraft and that genre of writing; is that something that you’ve enjoyed over the years?
Oh, yes. I was first introduced to Lovecraft via [Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s] The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which asserted that everything Lovecraft wrote was, more or less, true. This was tantalizing for a kid in high school, so when I was finished with those books I went straight out and gobbled up everything he wrote. It was like I had stumbled onto some giant, fascinating secret.
It’s hard for me to tell. Writers are blind to their own motivations, I think, just as most people are, but perhaps doubly so since we’re externalizing a lot of things about ourselves.
But I would guess that, yes, having a kid and just generally growing up has probably significantly changed my writing. Exactly how it’s changed my writing is harder to pinpoint – having a child is probably one of the bigger impulses to stop thinking about your own needs 24/7, because now there’s one person in this world that, if you do not think about their needs, there is a chance they could actually, well, die. So probably that, and having to work with a greater scope of people in life, has probably made me broaden a lot of my interests, which inevitably make you broaden your writing.
You’ve said that you hope that the reader has learned something definite about the world as a result of reading your books; what have you learned from the experience of writing American Elsewhere?
I would guess that I’ve perhaps learned to trust myself a little more. Not from writing it, but from its reception so far – I figured I’d written a hot mess of a novel that was all style and sugar and very little protein. Seeing that people like it – and seeing that some even say it’s by far and away the best thing I’ve ever written – makes me doubt doubting myself a little more.
In other words, this has probably encouraged me to flex my muscles a little more.
Probably. Most of my books feature locations and settings that nearly function as characters in their own right, with the sole possible exception being The Troupe. Books that get reread are reread because there’s an experience or a quality the reader wants re-experience: whether it’s, “I’d like to hang out with these characters again,” or, “I’d like to see these cityscapes/landscapes again,” there needs to be an element beyond plot to produce rereadability.
Think of books like a bar – what makes someone keep going back? It could be the company, or it could be the ambience, or it could be the view out the window.
Do your stories start from a central image, or from the characters – or does it simply differ from tale to tale?
I usually start with a series of images. These images grow into scenes, which I then stitch together. As I progress from image to image, I start to understand the characters – which is why I usually have to do some extensive rewriting, because I know more about the characters at the end of the book than I do at the start.
The books we’ve read so far have shown what appear to be a wide variety of influences – from Steinbeck in Mr Shivers to C.S. Lewis/Tolkien in The Troupe to Neil Gaiman and Stephen King in American Elsewhere – which would suggest you are widely-read. Do you still find time to read for pleasure?
Less and less, unfortunately. Part of it is an issue of time – but another problem is that, as Jerry Seinfeld put it, you never see comedians laughing at another comic’s standup. At best, they’ll just say: “That’s funny.” So, when it comes to writing, I very rarely get to sit down and read as a reader, because I’m mentally trying to cut a book apart and learn from it. And if I don’t think I’m learning something from a book, or if what’s there to learn is something I’m not interested in learning, then I have less compulsion to finish it.
There have been only a handful of books in the past five years that made me read them as a reader – they turned me into a little kid, a zam-wow factor that is like a drug if you can get it. But probably I’m growing increasingly desensitized and calloused in that regard – an unfortunate side-effect of my profession.
If you had to name one book – fiction or non-fiction – that really impressed itself on you growing up, what would it be? And, more importantly, have you reread it as a grown-up?
Oh, gosh. I would probably say that Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan really, really fucked me up as a kid. It made me feel sad and little in a way no other book has before, and I decided I hated Kurt Vonnegut, as all his books made me feel that way. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that feeling was actually a good thing, as what it was doing was giving me a balanced perspective on life – in which we, despite our many claims, are not all that important.
What question have you always wanted to be asked, and no one has ever gotten around to it?
I suppose I would like to be asked which type of tree is the best to sit under at 6:00 PM in the evening. (A live oak.)
Thanks to Rose Tremlett at Orbit for helping set up this interview.
Read our reviews of Robert Jackson Bennett’s work here: