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, is currently nominated for a Philip K. Dick Award as well as an Edgar Award. His third novel, The Troupe, arrives in stores on the 21st of February, 2012. He lives in Austin with his wife and son. He can be found on Twitter at @robertjbennett.
Charles Tan: Hi, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you get into speculative fiction?
Robert Jackson Bennett: Thanks for having me! I suppose I’d say it’s been something I’ve always read since I was a kid, and it’s the perspective that I’ve always returned to. Speculative fiction allows greater exploration of the abstract than nearly any other fiction perspective – by which I mean the way each breed of fiction examines its subject. In spec fic, the ideals and philosophies that invisibly weigh upon us in our daily lives can become corporeal and tangible, and as we flesh them out we begin to see contradictions and frictions take shape, which tell us more about ourselves and our world.
Speculative fiction is considered a new genre to some, a maturation of science fiction or fantasy fiction, but it’s not, really: for what is Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale besides speculative fiction, of a sort?
CT: How would you describe your fiction? Do you consider it horror, fantasy, or something else?
RJB: To be frank, I’ve always considered it fantasy, even from the start. I thought Mr. Shivers was an urban fantasy novel, when I wrote it – for it revolves around mystical and fantastical elements in our own, somewhat contemporary world. And though The Company Man could be considered science fiction, it’s definitely the more fantastical end of science fiction.
One of the more interesting experiences in fiction is being told what you are by people who have never met you. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating as well. For example, I’m told The Troupe wears its genre nature very lightly – yet it’s a story about wolves dressed as people, about the creation of the world, about myths and fables. I thought that if anything, The Troupe embraces the fantastical with utter exuberance.
CT: How did Orbit end up as your publisher?
RJB: They wound were the only ones who would finalize the gamble on Mr. Shivers. We’d gone to a few other publishers, and an editor would say that they loved the novel and wanted to acquire it, but when they tried to actually put through the purchase, it always got stymied at the upper levels. I suppose it was not considered to be a solid investment by the decision-makers.
Orbit, on the other hand, was eager to snatch it up. They’ve been incredibly supportive of me. So far they seem to be willing to let me do anything – which is a rare thing for an investor to let you do.
CT: A lot of your recent lauded output has been novels. At what point did you realize you wanted to be a novelist, and what’s the appeal of the format for you?
RJB: I’m not quite sure. I’ve always been attracted to big things. When I was a kid, I was trained to be a musician, and I just couldn’t understand why anyone would want to write anything but symphonies – because symphonies were the huge, colorful, bombastic compositions, the ones that made you feel like your hair had been blown back at the end. Quartets are beautiful, in a delicate, pure manner, but symphonies were the strident, epic pieces, the ones with weight and gravity to them.
I suppose it’s the same way for novels. The things I want to examine with my writing are huge and complicated and heavy, at least to me. The Troupe, for example, is a (sometimes very literal) examination of the nature of the whole world. I find it’d be hard to do that in a short story. Perhaps I’m not Zen enough to fit all of existence into a short koan.
CT: Moving on to your recent novel, The Troupe, this is your third published book. What were some of the experiences you learned during the writing/publication of your previous two books that were applicable to The Troupe? How about lessons that you learned which were specific to this novel?
RJB: Well, The Troupe is a much more character-focused and pathos-oriented book. It’s softer than my other two – it’s about a naive, vain young man learning to grow up. It is not about hard-bitten men who think they already know the world, and are acting to intervene, often violently.
And I think my reason for doing this was that I wanted to have a story where all the friction and energy came from the characters’ interactions. The entire plot of The Troupe comes from what characters learn about each other, about what they’re doing or have done in the past. It’s about understanding people as much as it is about understanding the world.
I think that in order to attempt such a method, I had to relax a little, and allow the characters to find very unique, individual voices. To do so requires subtlety, which I hoped I attained – because the reader must feel like they’re learning along with the characters, so everything is glimpsed, in a way: through glances and glimpses and veiled truths. People often don’t know the truth about themselves, let alone each other.
So, in the first half of the book, it’s George catching glimpses of who these people are, and what they’re doing – and as he pieces together their history and nature, they meld together in the second half and begin reacting with frequently dangerous consequences, like mixing potassium with water. They’re all contents under pressure, in a way.
CT: What’s the appeal of vaudeville for you?
RJB: Vaudeville, I think, is sort of the progenitor of modern American entertainment. It’s colorful, cheap, a little crass, and it targeted its acts toward specific demographics. It was one of the first methods of entertainment to take advantage of the shrinking nature of the world: for what previous medium of entertainment toured with such speed and distance besides vaudeville?
The medium in the book served to embody some of those abstracts I talked about earlier: for the culture of vaudeville is so contradictory, so ridiculous, that it could be viewed as a microcosm of our own lives, and our own world.
CT: A lot of the characters in the vaudeville act are all peculiar and unique; how did you decide on their personas and quirks?
RJB: I would say that each character is attempting to do the same thing: fulfill a role that rejects them. Both in their acts, and in their own lives: for Kingsley, the puppeteer, wishes to be a father, but has achieved such in the most monstrous way possible; Colette, the dancer, wishes to be thought of as a Persian Princess, when her true origins are much more scandalous; and Franny, the strongwoman… Well, she might be strong, but is she really a woman, or even a human being?
The Troupe is very much a book about perception: how you perceive yourself, and the world. When you go to see a show, what is on the stage is not true, not the actual nature of the players, but you wish to believe it is so. Somewhere in our own lives there is a performance occurring, of our own agency or someone else’s, for there are always truths we’d prefer to disbelieve, and so we accept a pleasant charade instead of accepting what is ugly or disheartening to us.
RJB: Vaudeville is an extremely well-documented era in American history – showbiz types love to talk about themselves. As such, plenty of vaudeville players had written autobiographies, such as Harpo Speaks or Fred Allen’s Much Ado About Me, were excellent resources for the cheap and shoddy end of vaudeville. The imprint of vaudeville is still quite recognizable in early movies – The Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, for example – and many later acts are still available on film.
CT: What other challenges did you encounter?
RJB: George. Initially, George was your basic bland fairy tale protagonist – mostly a viewpoint from which the reader can examine a fantastical world. Eventually I realized that, as an extraordinarily talented and pampered teenager, he would probably be a vain little shit. I always enjoy stories where a main character doesn’t realize how ridiculous they are, while the other characters are clearly aware of it – Susana Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and nearly all of P.G. Wodehouse are prime examples – so throwing George’s overweening sense of self up against the mercenary, belittling nature of vaudeville – and Silenus himself – was an absolute joy to write.
I still smile when I think of George coughing and asking Silenus – who has just given him a sip of some rotgut hooch – if that was a single-malt. Silenus’s reaction makes me want to read just that exchange at live readings.
CT: Regarding the darkness in your novels, is their inclusion intentional, or is it more of your subconsciously slowly creeping in to your writing?
RJB: I guess it’s the latter. I don’t think of The Troupe as nearly as dark as my previous novels, yet I keep hearing that it’s definitely a “Robert Jackson Bennett” novel – yet I think it’s a light, fun fairy tale, of a sort. Though, yes, there are monsters in it.
Maybe I just assume there’s darkness in everything. Unpleasant truths abound, and I feel it’d be foolish to try to ignore them. I can’t personally imagine writing a novel in which something dangerous or unsettling doesn’t happen, at some point in time.
CT: What projects are you currently working on?
RJB: I’m finishing up my fourth novel, currently titled American Elsewhere, which is sort of like Twin Peaks meets H.P. Lovecraft. It’s about an ex-cop named Mona Bright who finds out she’s inherited a house in New Mexico, and discovers her mother led a life she never knew existed. The house exists in a town based around a defunct lab much like Los Alamos in the 40’s and 50’s, and the town feels as if it’s never left that era. Soon Mona begins to wonder exactly who the residents are, and how they came here; and she begins to wonder why, exactly, the town is starting to feel like a home she never knew she had.
There’s also a collaboration project I’m working on, and a novella I have coming out from Subterranean Press called, “To Be Read Upon Your Waking,” about a British scholar excavating an ancient cathedral in Post-WWII France. Should be fun.