Friday, 21 October 2011

An interview with Ben White

I'm delighted to be able to have another interview on my blog today, this time with New Zealand author, Ben White. I met Ben on the Kindleboards when I first started looking at epublishing. One of his books, 'Resonance:Birds of Passage', was the first Indie book I ever bought and I was very impressed. I'm still waiting for the sequel! (Did you hear that, Ben?)

Hi Ben,

So who is Ben White?
        He's just this guy, you know? I have a fantastic wife and two adorably splendid young daughters, I live quite near the centre of New Zealand, and I like chips.

Also, sometimes I write a bit.

        When did you decide that you wanted to become a writer?

        I'm not sure, actually. I wrote little silly stories when I was around eight-nine-ten and was praised for my imagination, but I always wanted to make games, not write books. Then when I was around sixteen or so I got a lot of positive comments about the reports I wrote while on an IT course--all of the teachers mentioned how clearly I expressed myself and how they often got caught up just reading what I'd written, rather than objectively marking it. I took this as a good sign and started writing fiction, a lot of half-baked stuff that never got finished, but it led me to joining an online young writers' group which was really just fantastic. Lots of positive, encouraging, supportive people, some of whom I'm still friends with. The honest criticism and feedback I received also helped me a lot, I think the single most important thing a beginning writer can do is to expose their work to good criticism.

        Getting back to the question, I don't think I ever made a firm decision, "That's it, I'm going to be a writer!". I just pottered around doing a lot of different things, almost all of which involved writing in one way or another, and as time went by I focused less on the things I couldn't control--many of my projects were games or movies or TV shows--and more on what I could control, which were the words. Books are great because it's just the writer and the reader, nothing else in-between, no budgets to worry about, no special effects or programming issues or anything, just the best words to tell a story.

        What, in your opinion, makes a good book?

        For me, three things: good writing, a compelling story, and engaging characters. That last one is the most important to me. I'll forgive almost anything if I like the characters enough.

        What do you most like to do when you’re not writing?

        Generally speaking, anything that can be prefaced with 'sitting quietly and ...' is likely to be a favoured activity: 'sitting quietly and reading', 'sitting quietly and playing a game', 'sitting quietly and eating chips', these are all activities I enjoy. Of course, I also love spending time with my family, whether sitting quietly or not (usually 'not', actually, with two young daughters both 'sitting' and 'quietly' are rare enough).

        I also like media of all kinds, books, comics, games, cartoons, movies, TV shows--I love good stories and great characters, and I'm not fussy about how they're delivered to me.

        Where do your ideas come from?

        I've actually been thinking about this recently, and it could be that the main source of my inspiration is 'dissatisfaction'--either along the lines of "Why hasn't anyone written THIS book? Am I going to have to do it? Oh very well then" or seeing something that's less than it should be and thinking, "Right, we'll just see about that". As an example I'm working on a twisty-turny timey-wimey sort of thing partially influenced by Doctor Who--I love the show but the latest season has left me a little cold, so in a way this book is me saying "THIS is how it's done!"

        Other than that, and aside from the usual 'everything I've read, played, listened to, watched, or otherwise experienced', usually just odd little thoughts--often questions--that refuse to go away.

        You’ve said that your books tend to be about the empowerment of girls. Why that theme?

        I think about this one quite a bit. Part of it is that this is still a question that has to be asked--as long as we still have to think about prejudice, inequality, gender imbalance and so forth these issues are worth thinking (and writing) about. I also find it easier to write more subtle, interesting characters when they're female, and presenting female characters with traditionally male challenges can produce some interesting results. Then there's the rarity value----if you give me a character who's, for example, a basic fighter-type, making that character female will instantly double my interest simply because a lot of writers don't let girls be fighters. That's changing now and I'm glad of it, but there's still an imbalance between male and female characters and the roles they're 'allowed' to fill. It may also be influence from Japanese media--in anime and manga especially there tend to be just as many female characters as male, if not more, fulfilling all kinds of roles. In the kinds of stories I like (ie good ones) character gender (and to a certain extent sexuality) is less important than other attributes, but at the same time a vital part of who that particular character is.

        So I guess the simple answer is 'because when I'm figuring out who a character is most of the time they're a girl, and I don't have much interest in writing weak characters regardless of their sex'. Also I have daughters, and there just aren't enough good books about strong, independent, determined girls out there. I figure that every book I write is one more out there with strong female characters, and that can't be a bad thing.

        Finally (phew), it's just a matter of personal interest. I like writing about things that other people aren't writing about, and there just aren't that many people writing about girls kicking arse. It's still very much a minority thing. I'm not sure why, girls are loads of fun to write about, but it may be that--thinking of Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction now and very generally speaking--boys often only want to read about boys, while girls are more flexible. I can remember being this way myself when I was younger, ashamed to be reading Pippi Longstocking and hiding the cover between Hardy Boys novels--which I always thought were okay, but Pippi could have kicked their arses.

        Did you try the traditional publishers before you went Indie? If so, what sort of feedback did you get? If not, why not?

        Waaaay back when I submitted a single sci-fi short story to an anthology and received a very nice rejection letter--much nicer than I deserved--but that's the extent of my attempts to be traditionally published. I did look at agents and so forth but the whole thing just seemed like a huge hassle, and being located in New Zealand didn't help. Living in the most geographically isolated country in the world does have some disadvantages--that extra layer of 'disconnect' from the world of traditional publishing just made it seem impossible that I'd ever get noticed. Also, I've heard so many horror stories from so many people about losing control of their work, not having any input on the cover, being forced to make changes ... traditional publishing doesn't have much appeal to me. Aside from the great community, my favourite thing about being an indie author is the control it gives me over my books.

        If you couldn’t write for a whole year, what would happen?

        Some kind of localised explosion, possibly.

        Has there been a highlight to your writing career so far?

        Getting my first reviews, this affected me more powerfully than I had expected. Even when a reader didn't like one of my books I really appreciate that they not only gave it a chance but also took the time to share their thoughts with others. Of course, it's when a reader really gets what I was trying to do that I feel the happiest, and I've been both impressed and moved by the insight displayed by many of my reviewers. I think it was Neil Gaiman who said that good reviews are like keys; they unlock deeper understanding and appreciation. Until recently, I didn't realise that this applies to your own work as well.

        Tell us a little about your love of tea.

        It's just great stuff, is all. One of the things I love about tea--I'm talking mostly English Breakfast, the classic--is that there's nothing else like it, you'd never describe anything as 'a bit tea-ish'. Although English Breakfast is and always will be my One True Tea, recently I've started branching out a little. Rooibos is very nice, and peppermint tea with milk is delightfully refreshing.

        What would be your idea of an ideal world?

        Basically, kind of, sort of, this one. I love the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. I know there's a lot wrong with the world right now, a lot of problems and suffering and hardship, but I can't help the fact that I am, at heart, an optimist. I feel that things are getting better, slowly but surely, every day, that the future is an intrinsically good thing, and that if we just all do our best and pull together then everything's going to be all right. Having said that it's difficult to stave off cynicism completely, and this is one of the themes that I find myself exploring in my books--there are times when idealism is best, but also times when cynicism is necessary. Figuring out a good balance between the two is a big part of growing up. I do lean towards idealism most of the time, though--for example, in The Undying Apathy Of Imogen Shroud, although it mostly takes place during a zombie apocalypse, the characters tend to help and support each other rather than bicker and fight. I suppose my feeling is that most people are pretty decent when you get right down to it, and will band together against adversity rather than let it drive them apart.

        If I could change one thing about the world, though, make one 'push' towards a more ideal state of existence, it would be to encourage a greater understanding of and love for diversity. There are times when I feel like this is what's holding the world back, that if more people would just try that tiny bit harder to understand others then we'd all be happier. Not just tolerance, not just acceptance, but celebration of diversity. That's what I'd like to see more of.

Katie: Amen to that! 

Thanks for the very interesting talk, Ben. If anyone would like to know more about Ben and his books - here are some links. I highly recommend Birds of Passage and I'm just about to start 'The Boy and Little Witch' with my daughter.

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