I know I'm fascinating and all, but sometimes I wonder. A whole blog? About me? Really?
Yeah, yeah, I get it -- author blogs aren't supposed to be interesting. They just exist so we can say to our publicists and agents, "See? You told me to blog, so I'm blogging. And yes -- I'm on Twitter and Facebook, too. Now would you please shut up about Google+?" So I probably shouldn't sweat it.
You might know Ben from his popular mash-up novels Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. You might know him from his charming Edgar-nominated middle grade novel The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman (or its recently released and wonderfully titled sequel The Mystery of the Missing Everything). You might know him from his new thriller Bedbugs or his plays or his columns for the Huffington Post. Or you might know him because you went to high school with him. How should I know?
All I know is this: Ben's a great writer and a great guy. How is he as an interview subject? Let's find out, shall we?
Me: Hey, man! How's it going?
B.H.W.: Hey, pretty good, thanks. I'm a little busy, as it happens, because we've got a new baby at home -- three weeks old yesterday -- and I'm working hard on a tight deadline for a brand new novel. How's by you?
Me: Oh, I'm O.K. A little behind on my sleep, but I have Netflix to blame for that, not a newborn. Speaking of which -- babies, that is, not Netflix -- congrats! How are you handling the deadline/sleep deprivation convergence?
B.H.W.: Lots of coffee. (With apologies for the cliche, but some things become cliche because they're true). I'm lucky, though: I have good kids, and I love my work. I do a lot of counting how many weeks I have left, how many hours there are in each day, how much I feel I will get done in each hour. Then someone gets a fever, or I have to do a bunch of laundry, and I recalculate. Somehow, I forge ahead.
Me: Man, does that sound familiar. It's easier for me now that my kids are a little older -- our household has been diaper-free for a couple years now -- but juggling full-time writing with family obligations has always been a challenge. I shouldn't even call it "full-time writing." It's more like "full-time trying to write." So how do you hit your deadlines? Do you set daily or weekly word count goals for yourself, so it's a steady progression toward "The End"? Or is there an insane, coke-fueled push right before the due date?
B.H.W.: I set both word counts and hour counts, focusing more on the latter -- like, I'll go, "Tomorrow I'm going to work from 8:45 (when the kids are dropped off at school) until 10:35, when I'll go get a second cup of coffee, and then I'll work from 11 to 1:30, and then have lunch, and then go do errands for an hour and a half, and etc etc." I've found it doesn't help to say "I'm going to write 2,000 words tomorrow" unless you've budgeted the time in which that might conceivably happen.
Me: O.K., last process question. How quickly do you write? When I see other writers talk about their hourly or daily word counts, I'm always astounded...and depressed. People are cranking out 5,000 words a day, which would be a decent week for me. How about you? Do you think of yourself as a fast writer or a slow one?
B.H.W.: I do think of myself as a fast writer -- probably too fast. For many years I made my living as a transcriptionist, so I type really, really fast, to the point that when I used to share a writing space, people would hear my fingers zinging over the keys and think I was kidding, or being a jerk. But the quality of the words is what matters, of course, not the quantity. I try to do a solid 1,000 words a day, and when I say solid, I mean that when I read them the next day, I'm still happy with 500 of them.
Me: Do you find that the writing moves more quickly when you're working on a particular kind of project? I mean, you're a guy who's produced a psychological horror novel, two middle-grade mystery/comedies, two science fiction-tinged "mash-ups" and a ton of things for the stage. That's quite a big palette you've got to play with. What comes most easily to you, and what's more of a struggle?
B.H.W.: Well, you know, I don't generally have a harder or easier time with any particular genre or style; once I've got a bite on it, what the motives of the characters are, where the big scenes need to land, I can just fire away. In conversations about working in different genres, or in different mediums, I like to say that there are really only two kinds of writing: the good kind and the other kind. Having said that, I am at present working on a detective novel, one with a slight science-fiction "twinge," and finding it to be massively tricky, harder than anything I've done before. Hopefully that bodes well for the power and interestingness of the final product!
Me: So now you're adding an SF-flavored detective novel to your resume? Yowza, what's next? I think you've worked in every genre except...I don't know. Porn, maybe? Does that even count as a "genre"? Wait -- don't answer that. Answer this: Where did the idea for your new psychological horror novel, Bedbugs, come from? Personal experience? (Quick aside: Bedbugs is Rosemary's Baby with disgusting little bugs instead of Satan. The bugs are scarier. Publishers Weekly called the book "compelling," Booklist "chilling" and Penthouse -- yes, Penthouse -- "gripping." To see the funny and yucky book trailer, click here.)
B.H.W.: Personal experience? Oh good lord no, and bite your tongue! Really the inspiration for Bedbugs was in my affection for that kind of contemporary haunted-house style tale of suspense, where the happy young couple moves into the perfect home, and then all sorts of awful, diabolical things begin to unfold. I also love the kind of story where you are unsure from moment to moment if the haunting (or whatever) is real or the product of one person's feverish imagination. Like The Yellow Wallpaper or The Turn of the Screw or (especially) Rosemary's Baby. It seemed like bedbugs, being such a subject of horror and fascination for so many people right now, were a perfect way to update those forms of horror story.
Me: I don't know if I could write a book like Bedbugs. I get freaked out enough by bugs as it is. Like, if I see a cockroach in a hotel room, forget it: I'm going to be swatting imaginary roaches out of the bed all night. (Oh, god. I just remembered the time I turned on the light and THERE REALLY WAS A CENTIPEDE IN BED WITH ME!!! ARRRRRGGGGHHH!!! Great. Now I'm not getting any sleep for the next week.) Anywho, how about you? Did you manage to creep yourself out?
B.H.W.: It's funny -- I find that whatever effect a scene is supposed to draw, whether it's visceral terror of the kind you describe, or a laugh, or even just your basic "what's-going-to-happen-next?" fiction tension, I feel it personally the first time I write it, but then feel it less and less every time I go back and rewrite it. So that by the time I'm on a final draft, I have very little reaction to it at all; I'm still fussing around and fixing it and experimenting on a technical level with making it better, but I no longer get the jolt of fear or humor or suspense that I'm intending my reader to get. At that point I'm like the chef with no sense of taste, just trusting my own abilities because I can't really test it myself anymore.
Me: I know exactly what you mean. I can really tell I've done something right if I'm going over copy edits and something I wrote makes me laugh. That'll probably be the tenth time I've read that particular line, so if I still find it funny it must be good. Given the process you describe -- "fussing and fixing and experimenting" -- it seems obvious that you'd tell aspiring writers revising is important. What other wisdom would you share?
B.H.W.: I don't know if anything I have really amounts to wisdom. Writing is, on the one hand, such a annoyingly unteachable thing, because so much of it is about intuition and imagination, learning to develop and trust these intangible, frustrating, elusive qualities. But on the other hand, I'm a strong believer in technique and craft, and in discipline and structure, and those are things that you can learn, things you can practice and develop, like muscles, over a lifetime. I don't necessarily think my imagination or my intuition have evolved all that much since I started writing -- though definitely my taste level is higher, and my interests have matured -- but I have learned, through hard work and necessity, to work harder, to stay on task, and to treat the products of my intuition and imagination with the seriousness I am arrogant enough to believe they deserve.
Me: I agree that it's almost impossible to teach writing, beyond pointing out technical or structural things a beginner might not know about. My advice to young writers is usually "Keep writing bad stuff until you're writing good stuff." Which sounds flippant, but hey -- it's what worked for me. Of course, another important bit of advice is to read read read. What books and writers influenced you?
B.H.W.: Answering this question always makes me feel like I'm in high school, trying to be into the hippest bands so other people think I'm cool. My all-time favorite author is Charles Dickens (very original, I know), who is pretty consistently delightful. And, here, I'll give you two big influences on my writing, neither of which come from the world of straight-up fiction: The graphic novel Watchmen, just in terms of the fully conceived, meticulously created alternate reality; and the songs of Tom Waits, where we learn over and over the biggest lesson of good writing, which is to use lots of detail. All the great Waits songs (and there are very few non-great) include a town name, or a color, or a kind of car, or someone's idiosyncratic nickname. He's an incredibly specific writer, and also so damn fun to listen to.
Me: Alright, last question. Who let the dogs out? Who? Who? Who?
B.H.W.: Great question. Also, who's zoomin' who? And who'll stop the rain? And, crucially, who's makin' love to your old woman, while you're out makin' love?
Ben H. Winters tackles these and other burning questions on his blog. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and 27 children.