Q&A with Chris Benjamin, author of Boy With A Problem

The twelve stories in Boy With A Problem tap into “the heart of our deeply human fear of failing to truly connect with others.” Smart, compassionate, and insightful, Benjamin is able to say things through his stories without actually saying them. Gemma Marr, in her review at The Miramichi Reader, mentions the “one-sentence insights” that “take our breath away and ask us to pause and consider what is presented to us more purposefully.”

In Mulch Glue, a fifteen year old girl is filled with anxiety about the environment…

But my parents trip over this stuff. I can’t even talk to my mom about her own books. I tell her I’m amped up about making my life a counter-friction to Eastern Mulch and she sits me down for a “chat,” which means it’s time for a lecture on this theoretically new concept called eco-anxiety.

“And this is how the world doesn’t change,” I say.

“Excuse me, I change the world every day, one child at a time.”

This is what Mom thinks primary school teachers do. “And yet when this child wants to do something about the world, you crush her spirit.”

“I want your spirit to soar, Bree. Which is why you should enjoy being a child. We don’t want you to get hurt.”

“But I am hurting.”

In Inevitable, Wanda is afraid of death, haunted by thoughts of it everywhere she goes…

Long before her mother died, death–the fear of it–had stalked her. But since that loss she could feel death’s presence, hear its creaky longings. It wanted her. It wanted everyone. Decay and breakdown are inevitable.

In Realities, Carrie gets stuck in a trailer-sized, drug-taking rut in her hometown…

And the whole town crawls with former teachers, all of them surprised I never went anywhere. Most of my classmates did, down to the States or out west to work. No one around here is hiring. Barely any businesses left. But this is my home. More importantly, Mom still needs me to hear her complain. Somebody’s got to. Id feel worse if I left her. Better depressed here than guilty in some big city where no one has time to notice all your success anyway.

Arsonists begins with: “Today I am ending the life of my grandmother, who raised me, whose life force was incendiary. She burned off the poison my parents instilled in me early, which otherwise would have killed me.” Yet her grandmother is wracked with guilt about the past.

In How Far Beyond Me She Has Gone, a father feels powerless after learning about the assault on his daughter…

All those times I had stood at the bottom of a tree she was climbing, ready to catch her if she fell, and this was how the world hurt her.

Other stories include: a boy struggles to please his dad before and after his death; two adults with Down Syndrome fall in love; an immigrant with her Masters tries to get a job in Canada; a father finds himself coaching his son’s little league hockey team; a gay pastor works construction in a self-imposed exile; a young man’s first Christmas after the death of his father does not turn out the way he expected.

Q&A

I have been following Chris Benjamin’s work since I started blogging and focusing more on local writers and books; a little after Drive-by Saviours and Eco-Innovators, and a little before Indian School Road and his appointment as managing editor of Atlantic Books Today. So I’m very happy to have been able to ask him some questions via e-mail.

In the interview below, Chris Benjamin talks about his writing process, the importance of eavesdropping, grandmothers gluing themselves to things, THE BEST advice from Alistair MacLeod, and good books!

1. As a writer with a family you’re automatically a busy guy. Where does the writing fit into your life? Do you have a routine, or do you just write when you get the chance?

Whenever I get the chance. I try to make it part of my job, and thus fit into my 9-5 M-F working week. I spend 20 of those hours working at the APMA, the other 20 is freelance. If I don’t have 20 hours of freelance work to do in a given week, I dedicate those unpaid hours to writing that gives me a charge (rather than a cheque). But that includes the promotion of books, maintenance of my website (I don’t spend enough time on that one), social media stuff, school visits (in normal times), video work, etc. Today I’m answering a bunch of emails and then I hope to spend a few hours editing a novel-in-progress.

2. You’re now the published author of a non-fiction book, a novel, and a short story collection. Was the writing process different for each one? Does one form call to you more than another?

Two non-fiction books actually. Yes, the writing process has been pretty wildly different for all of them, partly because of genre but also subject matter and phase of life are factors two. My first book was a novel, Drive-by Saviours, which while writing it I just called by Subway Novel, because I spent three hours a day commuting by subway (and streetcar and bus) to work and back in Toronto. I spent most of that time writing. I had no children so I worked long hours at a nonprofit environmental institution. I loved my commute and the creative output. Book two was Eco-Innovators, a collection of vignettes about people in Atlantic Canada, from all walks of life, dedicated to changing the world for the more sustainable. It was nothing but interviews, transcriptions and converting to story. I really enjoyed that too, mostly for the fascinating conversations with admirable people. And it involved some travel. I had a toddler, which is about when I learned to contain writing activities within a 9 to 5 scene. I had a regular column I wrote for The Coast (which led to the book) and I had a part-time job at another environmental group in Halifax. Book three, Indian School Road, is a history book about a very difficult and sensitive topic. It involved a lot of time in provincial and national archives. Plus a lot of phone calls to set up interviews, and tracking down other writers who had covered the school at some point. Hours and hours of reading, photocopying, highlighting, note taking, and then figuring out how to structure it all into a book. That was the hardest part. Boy With A Problem was mostly material that had been written (and sometimes published) over a 17-year span, with some new material as well. It was mostly a part of figuring out what to cut and what to keep, to create a somewhat cohesive collection, and explain to publishers how it fit together. My writer friend Sarah Mian actually figured that out for me. 

3. I read books from a variety of places, but feel most passionate about books close to home. How strongly do you feel about sense of place in your writing? Are you influenced by the idea of ‘home’?

Place is so important. The reader has to know where they are. Even if the place in your story is an abstraction, the reader needs to feel that particular dislocation. I suppose I’m quite influenced by ‘home’ given the things I’ve written, all are set in a place near where I lived at the time, or where I’d spent impressionable time, like Indonesia as a young grad student. But I’ve always felt it’s the people who make a place home, who give it its culture, who design its streets and buildings, who choose what symbols to display. Then again, it is also the place that makes the people. I suppose character and place are intricately linked and I try to pay close attention to them both. 

4. If I had to choose just one story from your collection that resonated with me, it would be Mulch Glue. My oldest daughter and I have had conversations just like the one in this story – you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Where did this idea for a story come from? 

Thank you. I think the seed was a story I read about grandmothers gluing themselves to things in protest against corporate destruction of natural environments. It really struck me. As mentioned in the story, they did it knowing if the cops just yanked them off it would look really bad on the news. Hardcore. I remember partaking in these anti-globalization (globalization as in making it easy for multinationals to overrule the laws of individual countries) protests in the early aughts, and getting kicked in the head by police officer in riot gear; they didn’t seem to worry how it looked on the news. Perhaps if I’d been a grandmother though. But apparently young people have also done this glueing themselves to things in protest. I love the idea but it got me thinking also of our relatively tame style of protesting here in Nova Scotia. Usually there are a few speeches, a police-escorted march along a pre-approved route, then another few speeches. And I thought of how hard it is for young people to take a stand against the old guard in a rural town here, how one can feel so isolated fighting the established norm.

5. In the conversation you had with David Huebert, I was struck by your comment about writing dialogue – that someone once told you to answer questions with questions. It really seems to work. Do you have any other tips for writing good dialogue?  

The most important thing is to be an eavesdropper. It’s not polite, but it’s kind of essential to understanding how people really talk. It’s hard to learn that from your own conversations, because you aren’t thinking about how it sounds when you participate, and your own conversational style influences how it rolls out. Also, different cultures have different norms or expectations in terms of leaving space, interruptions, volume etc. I highly recommend that writers travel by bus—city bus and interprovincial or interstate bus. You can hear the best conversations. It’s astounding the things people talk about and say, and you get a feel for how a diversity of people talk.

Advice part two: keep it short. Save the soliloquies and speeches for television writers. People rarely talk that way.

6. What is the best writing advice you ever received?

Well this isn’t really advice, because I can’t think of a single tip or even philosophy of writing I’d espouse. And it wasn’t given specifically to me. But I remember hearing Alistair MacLeod interviewed on the radio, actually I think it was a clip CBC played after his death. The interviewer asked him why it took him so long to finally publish a novel, or something somewhat irritating like that. And he said, gently, “Because I was living a life.” He was raising his children, teaching, loving his wife, being part of his communities. And yes, very few writers are blessed with hours and hours a day to write, because it doesn’t really pay that much for most of us, and of course life “gets in the way.” The writing is very important to us. It’s our art. It’s our outlet. It’s our interpretation of and how we make sense of reality. But “living a life” is more important. And, by the way, it makes you a better writer too.

7. Are there any authors or books who have influenced your writing over the years? 

Everyone I read. A few short story collections with sentences that really struck and influenced me recently: Kerry-Lee Powell’s Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush, Kris Bertin’s Bad Things Happen, Huebert’s Peninsula Sinking. Anything by Elaine McCluskey. Chris Abani’s novella Song For Night really made me think about how to develop a character, as did Carol Bruneau’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are.  

8. What books have you read recently that you would recommend? And what’s on your bedside table right now?

I would highly recommend Doing Time by Carole Glasser Langille, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei Brenyah, and Evicted by Matthew Desmond.

Currently I’m reading a disturbing history book by Allan Bartley called The Ku Klux Klan in Canada. Did you know there was an MLA in New Brunswick in the 20s who was a high-ranking member of the KKK? I hadn’t realized this particular version of white supremacy had had such influence north of the 49th.  

9. Are you working on any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

I’m working on a new novel, which I hope will soon be ready to submit somewhere. It deals with themes of colonialism, institutionalism and guilt. 

Thank you to Chris for taking the time to answer my questions. (I’m looking forward to your next book!)

14 thoughts on “Q&A with Chris Benjamin, author of Boy With A Problem

  1. wadholloway says:

    Good interview! If I never see another interview asking white type of pen do you use or which way does your desk face, it will be too soon. To pick just a few of the points you raised: I need what I read to be definite and accurate about where it’s placed; I remember (being a child of the 60s) when marches degenerated into “police-escorted .. along a pre-approved route, then another few speeches”; in the book I just reviewed the main character, who is not yet a writer, practices writing invented conversations every night. Of course it is autobiographical, and it shows.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Bill! Chris gave such great answers!

      I can totally see how practicing writing out conversations could help with writing dialogue. Out of curiosity, it would be neat to give it a try and see what it sounds like. For me, not too great, I’m pretty sure! 🙂

  2. Karissa says:

    Great interview! I especially like hearing about how he incorporates his writing life into his regular life. And what a great response from Alistair McLeod!

  3. buriedinprint says:

    So interesting! I appreciated the talk of process and how the different projects were similar and distinct. Also, Elaine McCluskey is awesome, and thanks for reminding me that I still haven’t read her most recent novel.

  4. annelogan17 says:

    Good for him for fitting everything into a M-F 9-5 schedule! That most be so difficult, especially because it’s so much writing. And of course, having a family never makes it easier…

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