Please welcome Ben Peek to the blog! His story collection, DEAD AMERICANS, just came out and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about it, and much more!
Congrats on your new collection, DEAD AMERICANS! Will you tell us a little about yourself and your background? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yeah, alright: I live in Sydney with my partner, Nikilyn Nevins. I’ve lived here for all my life, but Nik moved here from the States a few years ago – we’ve just finished going through the long and painful process of getting her residency here. She’s a photographer, and you can search out her stuff, if you’re so inclined.
As for me, I’ve mostly gotten by so far. Over the years, I’ve been a projectionist, a lecturer and a teacher, and I have a doctorate, which just sort of happened, but mostly I’ve been a writer, of greater and lesser success. I started publishing fiction when I was eighteen, and I’ve managed to keep it up so far.
What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
I wrote a big fantasy novel when I was fourteen, maybe thirteen. It was going to be thirteen books and epic, I tell you, epic.
Still, I think we can all be thankful it wasn’t published.
Or, y’know, finished.
In DEAD AMERICANS, you feature quite a few big names in your stories. What inspired the concept?
American culture has a big resonance around the world, and in no place is it more true than in Australia, where the country – like most colonial countries – struggles to discover its identity.
You can feel the American influence very deeply in Australia. Presidential elections are watched keenly, people watch American movies, listen to American music, and learn the names of their franchise heroes, celebrities, and Presidents, before they learn the Australian ones. Such a description sounds negative, I know, but the truth of it is that I am fascinated by it, and endlessly interested in how it influences us as human beings. Much of the Dead American fiction is, then, really an exploration of this huge culture that exists around me, and the things that influence me, and the things that influence others.
What is one of your favorite stories in DEAD AMERICANS, and why?
My favourite is ‘Octavia E. Butler’, which is based on the world of the great, but sadly lost, author Octavia Butler.
I like it, primarily, because of how strongly and importantly Butler’s work resonated with me. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents had a great impact on me as an author and adult, and I admire her first novel, Kindred, very much. Not all her work is great: Fledgling (corrected), her final novel, as an odd piece, and felt incomplete, in many ways, but even when I didn’t enjoy a book as much as another, I always admired what she was doing, the intellectual pursuit, the emotional engagement.
I have seen a few people reading ‘Octavia E. Butler’ as a piece about her life, and her as a person, and while I don’t like to tell people that they’re wrong in how they read a piece, I feel it is important to point out that the story isn’t about her as a person. Rather, it is about her work: each chapter is structured around one of her novels, and my goal with it was to fashion a narrative from Butler’s work that was, in one breath, a single, cohesive narrative in its own right, and in another, was a critical conversation about the themes that drove her work, turning it into a creative non fiction. You don’t have to have read her work to enjoy it, but if you haven’t read Octavia Butler’s work, you really should.
I’m assuming you did a bit of research for the book since it involves some pretty famous names. What was one of the most fascinating things you discovered?
Yeah, but mostly, it’s the research you’d not expect that seeps into the work. Dead American stories are, by and large, focused on the cultural influence of America, and so the figures who appear in it are not designed to be autobiographically true. They’re symbols, first, and the influence of their art, or the aura they presented, comes before the reality of their lives. For example, John Wayne is the embodiment of what the classic American male once was, in that he was loyal to his friends, honest to himself, and if he was flawed, and he often was, he was always capable of rising above it for a moment of greatness. In real life, Wayne, whose real name was Marion Morrison, was a supporter of Black rights, but he never supported the rights of Native Americans for their land entitlements – there’s a quote that around where he says that he always thought the Native Americans selfish, for they had enough to go round. I found that fascinating.
The story of Wayne being on Joseph Stalin’s assassination list came from Orson Welles, a man who never let truth stand in the way of a good story, and while I am not exactly the same, I am content to leave my research behind if I get a better thematic resonance from the story.
What is your writing process like?
It has a lot of rewriting.
I tend to write a first draft, and then I rewrite. All the real writing, prose style, theme, all the things that make a story work, are done then. For me, a first draft is nothing but a vomit of ideas and occasional good lines.
What are a few of your biggest literary influences?
It really depends on the day you ask me, but today, I’d like to actually just mention Lucius Shepard.
Shepard died last week, sadly, and I liked him a great deal as a person and as an author, but rather than sit around and tell you all about my personal relationship with him, I’d like to talk about his work. He wrote excellent stuff – his collections, the Jaguar Hunter, Ends of the Earth, Trujillo and Other Stories, Dagger Key and Other Stories, Five Autobiographies and a Fiction, and more, reveal a really strong and commanding body of short fiction, intellectually and emotionally connected to themes of equality and culture. For anyone looking for a consistently impressive body of work in short fiction, Shepard’s work is an excellent, and diverse place to begin, and I admire than endlessly.
What do you like to see in a good book or story, and is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?
Man, what do I like to see? You know, it really differs, but I like to see good writing, intelligence, and I like fierceness, as well. I like it where work engages my adult self in any of the many, many multitude of ways that I can be engaged – I’m mostly turned off when I think an author is coasting, or bad, or when I think they’re being simple.
Heh. Well, I have had a long love for film, though of late it feels a bit weak, and I’ve been enjoying TV series like True Detective and Breaking Bad. Also, Elementary. I find that much more progressive than Sherlock, and one of my favourite past times is to engage my students in debates about how racist and sexist Sherlock is. So, y’know, trolling my students. I suppose I could be teaching them…
But otherwise, I like to find new books, and occasionally old books, I like to listen to music, and my girlfriend and like to travel a bit, though we don’t get to do it enough at the moment.
I can’t wait for your next book, THE GODLESS! Will you give us a bit of a teaser?
No, wait, here’s the cover: it has a girl holding a burning sword. What you can’t see are the dead gods that lie around the world, the army coming up the mountain and, well, all the madness that is a big fantasy novel filtered through my adult self (as opposed to my childhood self and his thirteen book series).
What’s next for you?
I am finishing the second book in the Children Trilogy, Leviathan’s Blood.
About DEAD AMERICANS:
A collection of the critically acclaimed dark, weird, and surreal short fiction of Ben Peek. It presents a world where bands are named after the murderer of a dead president, where the work of Octavia E. Butler is turned into an apocalypse meta-narrative, and John Wayne visits a Wal-Mart. It presents a world where a dying sun shines over a broken, bitter landscape and men and women tattoo their life onto their skin for an absent god. It presents a zombie apocalypse, Mark Twain dreaming of Sydney, and answers a questionnaire you never read.