It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Ben Winters and also of his publisher, Quirk Books. I loved Bedbugs, his release from last summer, and last week I reviewed his new title The Last Policeman. I also got to be a part of his blog tour, which I’m thrilled about. Here is my Q&A with Ben Winters…enjoy!
1. How did you get started as a writer?
There are a lot of different answers to that — I’ve always been a writer by inclination, I guess, or at least a voracious reader. I started my career more interested in writing for performance, doing standup comedy and writing plays and musicals. I think as I got a little older I was less interested in being in front of people and getting that immediate thrill of watching people react to what you write, and more interested in the complex overlapping challenges of writing long fiction. I was lucky enough to forge a relationship with Quirk Books, borne of a shared sensibility and proximity—my wife and I were living in Philly for a year while she pursued a clerkship, and literally moved across the street from Quirk. So over the years we did a few nonfiction things together, and then they offered me to the opportunity to write Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, which was my “big break,” I guess you’d say. But like most big breaks, it came after a lot of years of small breaks, frustrations, and steps in the wrong direction.
2. What made you want to write a pre-apocalyptic story as opposed to a post-apocalyptic one?
Don’t tell anyone, but I was actually less interested in creating an interesting universe for this story to take place in, and more interested in creating an interesting hero. I admire writers who creates detectives that readers fall in love with, or at least who we enjoy following around. So the setting for the book really emerged from my attempt to craft an interesting psychological profile — who is the guy who stays at work? Who continues to care in bad circumstances? So that portrait requires me to create the worst possible circumstances. Ergo, pre-apocalypse.
I think that’s how it went. Something like that.
3. You did a lot of research on astronomy for this novel. Can you describe what the research process was like for you? How did it affect you?
Research, I have to say, is a pretty boring thing to describe. I called a bunch of people. I read a bunch of books. I watched internet stop-motion animations in which rocks of various sizes smash into the planet. Research, even more than providing the interesting details that make a book good, is how I get excited and stay excited. The more I know about reality, the better the fiction will be. I hope.
4. You’ve written books in several different genres: YA, parody, horror, and now sci-fi/mystery. Is one genre more challenging for you than others? Which genre is your favorite to write?
Genre, as a concept, is I think more useful after the fact — in terms of marketing, and talking about the book — than it is during the writing. Like, Bedbugs (which you very correctly label as horror) and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman (YA) are both mysteries in their own way, just as much as the Last Policeman. It may be reductive, but I think that all really good books are mysteries—even if the mystery to be solved is as simple as, How does this turn out? Is this girl going to be OK? Where the hell are all these demon bedbugs coming from?
5. The Last Policeman is very different than your previous book Bedbugs. How was your writing process different when you wrote this book as opposed to when you wrote Bedbugs?
Not as different as you might imagine. I mean, I researched different things — entomology and mythology on the one hand, forensic pathology and astronomy on the other hand— and I took inspiration from different sources (Rosemary’s Baby on the one hand, PD James and Russell Hoban on the other), but the basic process is the same: research, think, read, research, tentatively outline, write, rewrite, revise outline, research more, drink too much coffee, start over, procrastinate, tentatively outline. Repeat. Right now, at this very minute, I’m working on the Policeman sequel, and drinking too much coffee and actively procrastinating by doing this blog interview.
6. Hank briefly mentions that his favorite book is Watchmen, and I can definitely see him as sort of a cross between Nite Owl and Rorschach. Was Watchmen your main inspiration for Hank’s character, or did he also come from other sources?
Tons of sources. Like all detectives, he owes a debt to Sherlock Holmes and his heirs. Plus there’s a lot of my dad in there, a lot of Batman, a bit of Adam Dalgleish, a bit of myself. Who knows where characters come from, ultimately. Hopefully they eventually just present themselves as their own cats. And he’s definitely more compassionate than Rorschach, more competent that Nite Owl.
7. When society falls apart, Hank seems to be one of a very few decent people left. Would you say your book paints an optimistic or pessimistic view of humanity?
Nope. I refuse to say. You tell me. And by “you,” I mean you, Jen, and also everyone who reads it. I’m actually sort of curious what the mood is this things settles onto folks—I know it’s pretty grim, but I like to think of old Hank as a beacon of light, in his own quiet way. Whether that small light makes for a sunsent kind of book, or a dawn kind of book, I don’t think I can say.
8. Can you tell us when the next book is coming out, and/or any details about the plot?
Comes out exactly one year after this one, so July 2013. (And any luck the third one a year after that.) I can only tell you that Hank is on a new case, and Maia is a couple months closer, so the world is a couple months more of a wreck. Now I’m going to get back to work, so I can tell you more about it at some point soon!
A big thank-you to Mr. Winters and Quirk Books for the opportunity to participate in this blog tour! And for the record, I personally feel that The Last Policeman is a mostly optimistic book. Something as monumental as Maia would naturally bring out both the best and the worst in people, but it also gave Hank the chance to become a hero. Maybe he can’t stop Maia from coming, but he is a hero because he stands for justice and order in a world that’s in chaos. And I think that shows that people are basically good, and can remain good people even in the face of catastrophe.
The book is out in stores now, so please read it and tell us what YOU think!