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, won a Special Citation of Excellence from the Philip K Dick Award, as well as an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. His third novel, The Troupe, has topped many “Best of 2012” lists, including that of Publishers Weekly. His fourth novel, American Elsewhere, is now nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. His fifth, City of Stairs, will be released in September of 2015.
He lives in Austin with his wife and son. He can be found on Twitter at @robertjbennett.
Robert kindly answered a few of my questions…
Kristin Centorcelli: Congrats on the Shirley Jackson Award nomination! Will you tell us about your novel and what inspired you to write it?
Robert Jackson Bennett: It’s called American Elsewhere. It’s about an ex-cop drifter named Mona Bright whose father dies and she inherits a house that belonged to her mother over 30 years ago. The house is in a town called Wink, in New Mexico, but Mona can’t find it on any map and all the authorities insist the town doesn’t exist. Mona’s mother killed herself when Mona was young, and she always thought her mother was a schizophrenic, but as she finds out more, she begins to suspect her mother once did government laboratory work at an observatory near there.
Mona finally finds out that Wink does exist, and it’s a curiously pleasant, perfect place. But it comes with a few rules: don’t go out at night. Don’t go up on the mountain to the north. And don’t look into one another’s business. Soon Mona starts to realize Wink isn’t like anywhere else on Earth – and she finds herself wondering exactly why it starts to feel so much like home.
The book works on themes that I’m somewhat obsessed with: the idea of rewriting reality, of pretending to be something you’re not, of insisting the world change itself to meet your vision of what you’d like it to be. It’s also about family, and I guess about America’s self-image, about how we think our past was even if we know very well it wasn’t quite like that.
KC: What, or who, have been some of the biggest influences on your writing, and why did you first begin writing?
RJB: I guess I first started thinking that writing could be A Thing I Could Do when I first read Neil Gaiman and realized people did this shit, this shit I was absolutely obsessed with, for a living. I think I was 18 or so.
I don’t know exactly why I started writing, though. The alternative never seemed to be an option.
KC: If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
RJB: Probably The Blind Assassin. Damn, that’s a good book.
KC: What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award?
RJB: I actually won one of these for my first book, and it was the first huge event in my career as a writer. I was a kid back then, and I don’t think I quite understood what it meant at the time. It was a big, big win for me, an incredibly big deal, and it made me want to stay in the game. I look back on it as one of the greatest formative events of my professional life. To be up for it again is a tremendous honor. I take it as a sign that, four books later, I’m still doing things right.
RJB: City of Stairs is my next book, my first second-world fantasy. It’s about a world of dead gods and a broken reality, where in some places, physics still work, and in another, they don’t quite do as you expect. It’s a world of shattered nations and numerous uneasy truces, which could all be upended when a diplomat winds up murdered in the capital city of Bulikov. Shara Thivani, ostensibly another diplomat but in truth a master spy, steps in to find out what happened – but quickly starts to suspect the gods aren’t quite as dead as everyone believes.