Robert Jackson Bennett, author of City of Stairs, joins John Anealio and Patrick Hester this week on The Functional Nerds Podcast.

Listen below, or at The Functional Nerds, or subscribe to The Functional Nerds Podcast through iTunes.

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[NOTE: This is the first of a series of Q&As with the Shirley Jackson Award nominees -- and soon-to-be winners, as they'll be announced this weekend!]

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…

UPDATE 7/13: AMERICAN ELSEWHERE won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel!


Kristin Centorcelli: Congrats on the Shirley Jackson Award nomination! Will you tell us about your novel and what inspired you to write it?
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[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

“Let me buy you a pint, Elric…”

This week, we posed the following to our panelists:

Q: We’ve all encountered characters in stories and novels that we’ve felt a real connection to, and would love to chat with more. Maybe buy them a drink. What characters have you encountered in Fantasy and SF that you’d like to buy a pint for?

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MIND MELD: The Rules of Worldbuilding

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

In fiction, especially Fantasy, SF, and the like, part of the joy of reading is the sometimes vast, and complicated, worlds that authors create. However, there are certain “rules” that seem to apply to this process, and io9 recently published an article called 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding, which made me wonder what authors and readers thought about the subject, what kind of “rules” they use in their writing, and also what they like to see in their reading. So I asked them:

Q: When you write, are there any particular “rules” you follow in your worldbuilding? What do you consider a “sin” in worldbuilding? For readers and authors, what do you like to see in regards to worldbuilding in your reading, and what do you consider a deal breaker? What worlds have captured your imagination more than others?

Here’s what they said…

Ingrid Jonach
Ingrid Jonach is the author of the young adult sci-fi romance novel When the World was Flat (and we were in love), published by Strange Chemistry.
Since graduating from university with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing (Hons) in 2005, Ingrid has worked as a journalist and in public relations, as well as for the Australian Government. Find out more at www.ingridjonach.com.


For me, worldbuilding has to add to the narrative. For example, there is no point in telling me the ins-and-outs of a new plant species unless it is eaten or used for medicinal purposes in the story. Likewise, there is no need to spend ten pages explaining a piece of technology if it is never mentioned again.

My young adult novel When the World was Flat (and we were in love) is set in our world, but – at the risk of sharing spoilers – it also includes an alternate world with a re-imagined history. This alternate world is the catalyst for the relationship between the two main characters and all of the worldbuilding is connected to the events in the story.

My work-in-progress (WIP) goes one step further than When the World was Flat (and we were in love), as it is set in a world with a re-imagined history. This means breaking the rules of our current world (e.g. everyone eats ice-cream three times a day instead of just for dessert), but with good reason (e.g. the world is run by kids). I promise that is not the premise of my WIP!

I loved the worldbuilding in the Forest of Hands and Teeth trilogy by Carrie Ryan, because it showed the separation of societies in a post apocalyptic world by distance and therefore culture. They even have different names for the zombies in each region, e.g. the Unconsecrated, Mudo and Plague Rats.
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“Utopia is that which is in contradiction with reality.”  – Albert Camus

“There is no way I can avoid thinking about the kind of world I belong to. The abuse of utopias disfigures everything.” – Floriano Martins

(Note: this is an edited excerpt from a longer discussion of the book that I hope to publish later. I’ll be discussing this book at Readercon 24’s Recent Fiction Book Club panel; the schedule is up at my blog. Also, some SPOILERS ahead for the book)

There are many things that I love about reading a novel, and one of them is when my expectations are inverted, tossed about, and I gain not just a new perspective on the narrative, but on my own thoughts. Robert Jackson Bennett’s latest novel American Elsewhere does that, but does not accomplish a singular objective so much as give the reader’s imagination a rich, sometimes messy terrain to explore. It is an SF novel, a horror novel, a broadside against Great American Novels, and an exceptional reading experience that became, to me, a meditation on and satire of the notion of utopia.
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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  the winner of the Edgar Award and the recipient of a Special Citation of Excellence from the Philip K. Dick Award. His third novel, The Troupe, is available now. He lives in Austin with his wife and son. He can be found on Twitter at @robertjbennett.

Science fiction and fantasy is one of the hardest genres to write well in. Seriously.

You probably wouldn’t think it from reading what people write about the genre itself: according to some, our prose is stilted, our characters weak, our sequels interminable, and our plots flimsy. I disagree with a lot of these – like anything, anywhere, of any kind, this all depends on where you look – but none of these acknowledge the real pitfall inherent in any science fiction or fantasy novel: cool ideas.
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The Best Non-Book Book Trailer Ever

Here’s Robert Jackson Bennett baring his all for his soon-to-never-be-released novel A Sexual Experience: The Robert Jackson Bennett Story.
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In episode 114 of the SF Signal Podcast, Patrick Hester chats with author Robert Jackson Bennett!

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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?
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