Robert Jackson Bennett’s new novel, American Elsewhere, is out tomorrow, so I asked Robert to stop by to catch up on the new book, what inspired him to write it, and what he’s working on next!
Please welcome Robert back to the blog, and be sure to enter to win a copy of American Elsewhere (courtesy of the lovely folks at Orbit) before you go!
Robert, as you know, I adored your last novel, The Troupe, but I think you’ve outdone yourself with American Elsewhere. What inspired you to write the book?
It was a lot of things, really. I remember sitting around listening to Aaron Copland’s Our Town soundtrack on my porch in early Spring here, and there was a queer sort of perfection to everything (we had just cleaned – this lasted for about 10 minutes), and I remember thinking, “Man, I sure would like to capture this feeling.” I guess if I was to call that feeling anything, it could be nebulously termed “domestic peace.”
But that was mixed up in my head with a bunch of other things, like my ambiguous feelings about America’s self-image, and how outdated it frequently seems, an artifact of the 1950’s and 60’s more than anything present; and I started thinking about nostalgia, and history, and how people tend to step into the world with the compulsion to rearrange everything in order to match an image stuck in their heads, this picture of domestic bliss everyone tries to recreate, usually unsuccessfully.
I’m sure that this book was seriously affected by being a dad for the first time: I wrote it in the first year of my son’s life, about. And a lot of my feelings are reflected in Mona, who received a lot of conflicting information about what you’re supposed to do in order to be considered a good mom, dad, parent, or just plain happy.
I loved how Wink, New Mexico has that sort of 50s, Atomic Age, everything-is-perfect feel to it. Did you do any specific research in order to help you “build” the town of Wink?
When I was in college I got way into reading about Richard Feynman, and Los Alamos, and I started reading a lot about the architecture of that period, and how it reflected a sort of robust optimism that I don’t think has ever recurred, and which I think had a lot to do with the nuclear age and the space age. America started looking west, and when it did it started imagining how bright and happy the future could be.
We look back on this period with perhaps justified scorn, deeming it pretty naïve, but at the same time I’m jealous of it – after all, that specific brand of optimism is more or less what produced the golden age of science fiction.
Obviously Mona Bright is the main character of the novel, but was she your favorite character to write?
Mona was easy as hell to write. I would say that she was the easiest character I’ve ever written, with the sole exclusion perhaps being Marcus Connelly from Mr. Shivers. But the discursive form of her parts of the narrative, that was just a dream to write.
I’d like to return to that almost-first-person discursive form of writing in the future. It was like a drug. In fact, writing most of this book was like being on a really great drug – which may be a contributing factor to its length. I got addicted.
American Elsewhere weighs in at nearly 700 pages. How long, from start to finish, did it take you to write it?
I’d say probably around 8 or 9 months. Then another two months for me to completely rewrite the ending.
I write better when I have long periods of manual labor in between time in front of a keyboard: I get bored, start writing in my head, and then it’s just a matter of sitting down and typing. During this book, I got laid off from my job and had to go to work in a (terrible, depressing) factory, so I had 8-10 hours a day to just stand around writing in my head.
I love how the others in American Elsewhere are firmly in “grey” territory, neither good nor bad. What are some of your favorite “grey” characters (literary or otherwise)?
John le Carré does maybe the best possible job of making adversaries who have a reasonable explanation for what they’re doing: they have history, passions, circumstances that support and propel their actions. I mean, if someone is acting as an obstacle to the degree that you can generate a whole novel about the conflict, then they probably are at least moderately passionate about what they’re doing, or at least are strongly compelled to do so. And if that’s explored reasonably and intelligently, that’s interesting and compelling to read.
I personally am immensely bored by villains, in general: the Saw-brand bad guys who function less as characters and more like devices or machines. Even when well-written, well-described, and given great dialogue, they’re still more or less the shark from Jaws, and as such are much less interesting the second you start thinking about them off the page.
Is there something in particular that you would like readers to take away from American Elsewhere?
An urge to go to New Mexico.
You should go to New Mexico. It’s terrific.
What’s next for you this year and beyond?
I just got finished writing City of Stairs for Crown Publishing Group, which is my first second-world story. I mentioned John le Carré for a reason, I suppose: he’s been on my mind a lot, as Stairs is a fantasy story set in a Eurasian-inspired setting where the whole world is still recovering from a massive war, not unlike World War II.
Unlike World War II, one of the nations involved in the war had a whole pantheon of gods that allowed them to establish a global empire, and, much to their dismay, all of those gods were killed in the war. The winning nation is one of the former colonies of the empire, and is tentatively establishing its own hegemony, using commerce, technology, and espionage where the previous empire used the divine and the miraculous. But one of their chief operatives and foremost diplomats isn’t convinced that the divine has entirely left the world, and she finds herself caught up in a plot that not only threatens to upset the global powers, but also their total understanding of the divine.
Keep up with Robert: Website | Twitter
About Robert Jackson Bennett:
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, won a Special Citation of Excellence from the Philip K Dick Award, as well as an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. His third novel, The Troupe, is out now to wide acclaim.
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