A Conversation with Author Chris Benjamin (Drive-by Saviours)
Chris Benjamin is the author of Drive-by Saviours, the forthcoming novel from our fiction imprint, Roseway Publishing. We spoke to Chris about his craft, his inspiration and incorporating social justice issues into works of fiction.
What first attracted you to writing?
I’m not sure whether it was reading or listening to oral stories. Maybe it was movies, or good long jokes. But it definitely had everything to do with stories. I’m a writer in that if you put me anywhere near pen and paper I’m picking them up and putting some words down, whether they make any sense or not. I doodle in words. But my writing works best when there’s a good story to tell; I’m not much of a poet. Stories shape our world, and make sense of it for us. I think I’ve always had a deep desire to be part of that conversation, to be one of the ones telling stories, shaping and making sense of the world. And I’ve always had an active imagination. I never stop running stories through my mind, imagined scenarios, running experiments on characters in my head to see how they react to various stimuli. When you’re inventing stories, you are godlike. But rather than stand on a street or in a church hall, in front of frighteningly unpredictable human beings, shouting out my stories, I write them down. It puts a safe distance between the receiver and me - it’s padding for the inevitable negative feedback. And it forces me, against my nature, to polish my creations, cut unnecessary subplots and fill in the plotholes. So I can take pride in the end result.
Having worked as a freelance writer and journalist, did you find it difficult to write fiction, or did your experience lend itself to the writing of Drive-by Saviours?
I think the fiction and non-fiction influence each other constantly. I write tighter now than before I worked as a journalist. My writing has tightened further since writing Drive-by Saviours. I’ve become a word terminator. But fiction gives me a little more freedom, the chance to let the words take characters and events to unexpected places. The biggest challenge is that, after a day of writing facts for a (marginal) income, there’s little creative energy left to make up stories and write them with the care necessary to make the language itself a work of art. Having a toddler doesn’t free up any time either. But that’s not very different than most creative writers - you have to find the time and energy somewhere, whether it pays or not.
The plot of DBS is pretty unique, can you talk a bit about where this story came from?
It’s a cut-and-paste job of my own life experiences. I grew up with an OCD-sufferer, did my grad school research in Makassar Indonesia, and worked for many years with New Canadians from all over the world, and married a social worker. I don’t think I set out to throw all those things into the story, but they slipped in there somehow. I set out to tell an extraordinary story, so I started out with an extraordinary character, based on the greatest geniuses I’ve known in my life - all of them tortured to some extent. That character, Bumi, is an immigrant because people who pick up their entire lives and leave the only worlds they’ve known (whether by choice or because they’re forced to), and start all over in an alien culture, tend to have the best - though most horrific - stories.
You write on topics such as sustainability and social justice – are these themes present in DBS? Is it difficult to integrate them in an organic way, that is, without it being obvious that you are commenting on an issue related to social justice (for example).
They are present, and it is difficult. That is, when I write these things naturally slip into the story. They’re in my head all the time, so naturally they’re in my characters’ heads. And when I’m writing about someone as gifted as Bumi, he’s naturally inquisitive, trying to get to the bottom of things. So I guess that comes across as political because the answers are often political. But he’s really more of a philosopher than politician. When I finish a draft and re-read the work, I’m often surprised to find long tangents as characters talk politics or try to work out how they feel about the insanity of the world, and what if anything they should do about it. These are the struggles I’ve had all my life - a good life and one with many privileges, which allows me the time to think about these things, and gives me more than one way to address them in my own life. But that doesn’t make for very good reading most of the time, so most of that gets cut. That’s the hard part. Hopefully all that’s left is what is necessary for the character, and the character’s choices and actions, to make sense to readers. But these themes and ideas inevitably permeate my work. The more I trust that, the less I feel the need to push my ideas into the story and turn it into a polemic.
Does fiction or narrative have an advantage over say, an article or non-fiction book when it comes to influencing or affecting social change? Is one more effective than the other?
I can’t answer this with any great authority, but I suspect fiction and narrative are ultimately more powerful influencers. I do know (ironically, from reading non-fiction) that while we like to consider ourselves highly rationale creatures, the scientific research on how we actually make decisions suggests otherwise. The vast majority of our decisions, and thus our behaviours, are based on things like imagination, intuition, instinct, memory (just doing what we’ve always done, what we’ve learned to do), and feelings. I think fiction and narrative - storytelling - is so powerful because it involves the proverbial heart in the conversation, whereas academic writing or argumentative writing tends to talk more to the brain.
But, having said that, when we face extraordinary challenges, things we haven’t wrestled with before, we often fall back to reason, at least to some degree, to make sense of that. I think many people are doing that with respect to the myriad environmental crises we are facing. So there non-fiction also influences. But if it fails to speak to our deep values, our feelings, it will only fall on deaf ears.
For more information on Chris Benjamin, visit his website.